Oil slick off Australia more serious than thought, endangers whales, turtles

Narelle Towie, Perth Now 29 Aug 09;

THE danger to migrating whales and turtles posed by a massive oil spill off the Kimberley coast has been exposed by a satellite tracking and aerial surveys.

Oil and gas has been leaking from a faulty cement well on the West Atlas rig, about 250km off the far north Kimberley coast, since last Friday.

Despite assurances from the Federal Government and the rig's operator, PTTEP, that the slick is drifting away from the coast, a whale and her calf have been spotted alongside oil on the shore side of the rig.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert has flown over the rig and says she saw the whales near a breakaway slick. Strong ocean currents and wind are thought to have moved the slick towards land.

``There is a lot of oil that has spread substantially,'' Ms Siewert said.

``The Government have said that there is no risk to the coast, but that is nonsense. If it keeps flowing for the next seven to eight weeks, it is inevitable that oil will come ashore.''
It is expected to take seven-weeks to stem the flow of hydrocarbons forming a film of oil stretching over 180km from east to west of the rig.

The Government-run Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is managing the clean-up, has labelled it one of the worst spills to affect the WA coast.

Ms Siewert said legal action against PTTEP could not be ruled out.

Biologists say an endangered flatback turtle fitted with a tracking devise as part of a Barrow Island research project is on a collision course with the toxic slick.

Since late November, the 20-year-old female turtle has travelled 914km along the west coast.

The Wilderness Society says the Kimberley coastline is a ``marine superhighway'' used by 19 species of whales and dolphins, sea snakes, birds and fish.

WWF marine biologist Ghislaine Llewellyn says the tracking devise on the turtle illustrates the impact a disaster of this scale can have on a range of marine life.

Ms Siewert has accused the Government and PTTEP of misleading the public on the size and extent of the spill.

PTTEP says it will take at least seven weeks to stop the flow of oil because it needs to tow in another rig from Singapore.

Conservation groups have called on PTTEP to use a rig offered by Woodside Petroleum, which is only five days away.

PTTEP refused and a spokesman would not comment on the company's refusal.

Public 'misled over oil spill size'
Michael Hopkin and Marian Wilkinson, The Age 29 Aug 09;

THE company behind the West Atlas oil spill has admitted it has no idea how much oil has leaked into the Timor Sea, or how much will be lost before the leak can be plugged.

The admission came yesterday amid accusations the public had been misled over the true size of the spill, and that the slick now spans 180 kilometres.

Oil firm PTTEP Australasia said it had been unable to estimate the volume of oil spilled from its Montara platform since the leak began eight days ago.

"We are not in a position to calculate that at the moment," spokesman Mike Groves said yesterday. "We could make a visual guess but that would be inaccurate. The truth of the matter is we just don't know."

Mr Groves said there was no way to predict how much oil would leak before a second well could be drilled to intercept the flow - a plan set to take six weeks to implement.

"Our priority is to stem the flow of the leak as opposed to try and calculate how much is out there at the moment," he said.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert, who flew over the site yesterday, said the community had been "seriously misled" over the spill's true size.

"The spill is far bigger than we have been told, and closer to the coast than expected," Senator Siewert said. "There is a film of oil around the rig, from horizon to horizon. From east to west it stretches 180 kilometres at a minimum."

She said the current plan to bring a relief drilling rig from Singapore would take too long.

The rig, which set sail on Thursday, is not expected to arrive on site for another 16 days, and will take a further four weeks to cap the stricken oil well.

Environmentalists have warned that allowing the leak to continue for weeks would endanger the Kimberley's coastal mangroves, and the important reef ecosystem on Ashmore Island, 300 kilometres west of the spill's source.

Australian Marine Conservation Society director Darren Kindleysides said by the time the spill was capped, it could be "right up there as one of Australia's biggest in terms of the amount of oil".

Mr Kindleysides said chemical dispersants were the correct strategy for dealing with the oil, forcing it to form droplets that sink into the water column rather than remaining on the surface.

He also called for plans to be put in place for a comprehensive assessment of the spill's effects on fish and seabed species.

Federal Energy Minister Martin Ferguson, who is responsible for the safety of offshore oil rigs, said he wanted the leaking well repaired as quickly as possible, but was concerned at the risks to safety involved.

Departmental officials have been in talks with companies that have offered the use of closer drills and equipment, but there are questions over whether the equipment would be compatible.

Oil Spill Off Australia More Serious Than Thought (Update3)
Ben Sharples, Bloomberg 29 Aug 09;

Aug. 29 (Bloomberg) -- An oil leak from a well in the Timor Sea that threatens to harm migratory whales and breeding turtles has spread to about 80 nautical miles (92 miles) of the Australian coast, the Resources and Energy minister said.

Spraying of dispersant will continue today to accelerate the breakdown of the oil slick, Minister Martin Ferguson said in a statement after visiting the site. Australian Greens party Senator Rachel Siewert said in an earlier statement that the oil was 20 kilometers from the Kimberley coastline of Western Australia, and appeared to be more serious than had been previously indicated.

PTTEP, Thailand’s only publicly traded oil exploration company, said Aug. 23 it may take 50 days to plug the leak from the well about 250 kilometers (155 miles) off the coast.

The Bangkok-based company is unable to comment on speculative aspects of this issue, Ian Williams, a Perth-based spokesman said in a statement. A rig that will drill a well to plug the leak is expected to arrive at the site on Sept. 8, Williams said.

A Boeing 747 carrying equipment to disperse gas and prevent a fire at the field will leave Singapore Sunday night and arrive in Darwin the following day, Williams said. The gear will be fitted to two vessels and probably leave Darwin for the spill site 36 hours after arrival, he added.

Oil, gas and condensate started seeping into the Timor Sea Aug. 21 from a leak 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) below the ocean floor during drilling by the West Atlas rig.

Perth-based Woodside Petroleum Ltd. said Aug. 25 it is able to provide rigs, boats, workers and an “expert team” to assist in the response to the incident.

Australia denies 'downplaying' oil spill
Amy Coopes Google News 29 Aug 09;

SYDNEY — Australia denied claims Saturday it had downplayed the scale of a massive oil spill at a drilling rig off its northwest coast, and said the slick was dispersing naturally.

Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said the Greens party was exaggerating the size of the leak at the West Atlas drilling platform, about 250 kilometres off the Australian mainland.

"The area of the spill is rectangular in nature," said Ferguson.

"It is to the north-east of the rig and 15 nautical miles (28 kilometres) to the north and 60 nautical miles to the east.

"Contrary to what the Greens are suggesting, the closest it is to the Australian coastline is in excess of 80 miles (129 kilometres)," he added.

Ferguson's comments came after Greens Senator Rachel Siewert flew over the spill in a chartered plane Friday and said it was "far bigger than we have been told and closer to the coast than expected."

"From east to west it stretches 180 kilometres (112 miles) at a minimum. Urgent action is needed to stop the flow," she added.

Tonnes of dispersant chemicals have been dumped on the slick, and Ferguson said most of it was breaking up naturally.

"This spill will continue to spread in a north-easterly direction and I must say, as of today the weather conditions are assisting," Ferguson said.

"They are a bit more choppy and that will assist in the natural break-up of the oil and gas."

The leak began early last Friday at the West Atlas rig, forcing the evacuation of 69 workers.

Its Bangkok-based operator PTTEP Australasia was unable to cap the leak, and authorities have warned it could take up to seven weeks to contain, with a second rig sent from Singapore for the repair operation.

Based on average flow rates in the region and data from the company, Siewert said almost half a million litres (132,000 US gallons) of oil was daily spilling into the ocean.

She urged PTTEP and Norway's Seadrill, which owns the West Atlas platform, to accept the offer of a relief rig from Australian company Woodside Petroleum, which could be on the site within five days.

But PTTEP said there was no indication Woodside's equipment would reach West Atlas any faster than the Singapore rig, which it estimated would arrive in "seven or eight days".

"The other thing is there's different types of rigs and the option that has been selected by the company is the safest, most effective and most likely for success," said PTTEP spokesman Ian Williams.

He would not comment on Siewert's claims about the size and extent of the spill.

PTTEP on Monday estimated the slick was eight nautical miles long and 30 metres wide, and said it had "not shown signs of expanding".

It plans to drill a relief well with the secondary rig to intersect the leaking well head and stop the flow of oil and gas.

Government denies oil slick claims
ABC News 29 Aug 09;

Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson says claims that an oil spill off northern Australia is now only 20 kilometres from the Kimberley Australian coast are not true.

Oil has been flowing from the West Atlas rig in the Timor Sea for the past week and the Greens Senator Rachel Siewert says the slick is close to reaching Australian shores.

Martin Ferguson inspected the spill area today and says the Greens are sensationalising what has happened.

"The area of the spill is rectangular in nature," he said.

"It is to the north-east of the rig and 15 nautical miles to the north and 60 nautical miles to the east.

"Contrary to what the Greens are suggesting, the closest it is to the Australian coastline is in excess of 80 miles [148 km]."

Mr Ferguson says most of the pollution spilling into the ocean from a rig off northern Australia is dispersing naturally.

"This spill will continue to spread in a north-easterly direction and I must say, as of today the weather conditions are assisting," he said.

"They are a bit more choppy and that will assist in the natural break-up of the oil and gas."

Oil spill expert Ray Lipscombe backs Mr Ferguson's statement.

"I've just been speaking to the aerial surveillance officer who's on the aircraft overflying the area as we speak, and he hasn't indicated it has moved away from that position," he said.

A replacement rig is coming from Singapore and will be in the area in 11 days, but the Greens say the company should bring in another rig from a rival company that could be there in five.

But Mr Ferguson says that will not happen.

"In the end, we are best advised that for the safety purposes and the most successful potential rig is the West Triton and the rig we are bringing in from overseas is our best option to actually seal the leaking well head."

1 comment:

  1. So much for the safety of off shore oil drilling. Those who push for it should take a look at this spill where they have used the latest technology. As for the extent of the spill and it's environmental impacts- you can expect that the oil industry and their supporters, including those in regulatory agencies, will do everything they can to minimize the extent of the spill and claim the damage is minimal but that is simply not possible