Oil Exploration Possible Near Great Barrier Reef

CANBERRA, Australia, August 21, 2001 (ENS) - In Parliament today, Australian Environment Minister Senator Robert Hill left open the option of future oil drilling near the Great Barrier Reef, raising fears that the environment of world's longest reef might be damaged.

A multi-national company based in Houston, Texas, TGS NOPEC Geophysical is seeking permission from the Australian government to carry out exploration in an area north of Marion Reef in the Coral Sea, 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of the Whitsunday Islands. The company's Australian branch operates from an office in Perth.

"Senator Hill's response in Question Time today will disturb millions of Australians who oppose the very notion of mining or exploration on, or anywhere near, the Great Barrier Reef," said Shadow Minister for Environment, Senator Nick Bolkus. "Senator Hill is playing Russian roulette with the future of the reef."

The minister said only that he has still not ruled out the possibility of exploration and mining in the waters adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, not that he has made a decision to allow the activity.

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Sunrise on Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef (Photos courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority)
The Australian public is overwhelming opposed to any drilling. A poll conducted on the weekend showed 92 percent of people questioned believe that oil drilling should not be allowed in areas near the Great Barrier Reef.

In January, TGS NOPEC Geophysical sought Senator Hill's advice on whether the Australian government would allow drilling near the reef. Hill decided January 30 that the proposed seismic operations would trigger the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act "in relation to potential impacts on threatened whale species and the marine environment."

"I have decided that the world heritage provisions of the EPBC Act are triggered in relation to the potential impacts on migratory species such as the humpback whale," Hill said at the time. "Humpback whales are recognized as one of the world heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef. Whales that breed and migrate in the World Heritage property may also be found in the survey area."

Still, Bolkus says Hill is failing to admit that the potential impacts not only of seismic testing, but of drilling could be disastrous.

"Senator Hill's claims that the testing is some 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the World Heritage Area, fails to acknowledge that even in Australian waters, oil spills have been known to travel more than this distance," Senator Bolkus said today.

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Videoing coral at Heron Island for research
The proposed survey area goes to the boundary of the Lihou Reef National Nature Reserve and within five kilometers (three miles) of the remote and pristine Marion Reef. Fifty kilometers is not a long way in the marine environment with strong ocean currents and prevailing winds, Bolkus said.

TGS NOPEC spokesman Bruce Williams told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in January that the company has no specific customer for the results of whatever survey it might do. But if allowed to access the area, Williams said, the company would have no trouble selling its report on the presence and location of oil.

Reef protection is a joint state and federal government responsibility, and Premier Peter Beattie of Queensland, the state bordering the Great Barrier Reef, has expressed opposition to the exploration and drilling. The Queensland government plans a stakeholder task force to deal with the problems facing the Great Barrier Reef.

In Townsville, Queensland today, conservationists from the World Wide Fund for Nature identified the Great Barrier Reef as a global priority for protection.

Following discussions with reef experts, WWF marine conservation staff from 20 countries around the world agreed on the need for the Australian and Queensland governments to work cooperatively to reduce threats to the reef.

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An underwater view of the reef around North West Island
Representatives from the USA, Latin and Central America, Fiji, India, the Galapagos, Thailand, Germany, Russia, Norway, New Zealand and Australia are attending the five day conference in Townsville.

As part of the newly created international Endangered Seas Programme, WWF has committed to a global campaign to eliminate damaging impacts on the reef and to create a global benchmark for marine protection through a network of fully protected zones throughout the Marine Park.

"This extraordinarily precious ecosystem still suffers from a range of human threats including land based pollution, overfishing and climate change" said Dr. Simon Cripps, marine pollution expert and head of the International WWF marine campaign.

"Recent satellite photographs show dramatic evidence of sediment pollution from coastal rivers with the potential to smother sensitive coral reefs and other important habitats," Dr. Cripps said. "The potential for oil exploration and drilling adjacent to the marine park poses an additional major threat that must be prevented."