SYDNEY // With its white-sand beaches, pounding surf and unique wildlife, Australia's south-western coastline is one of the most celebrated and prized in the world. Yet it is all under threat, environmentalists say, if the federal government approves oil exploration in the Indian Ocean near the town of Margaret River.
With highly regarded vineyards in the surrounding hills and pristine ocean surf only 9km away, the town is the heart of one of Australia's premier tourism destinations. Visitors flock here not only for the wine and natural beauty - they are drawn by the thousands of whales that annually migrate along the nearby coast. Green groups and residents point to the ecological damage caused by BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill more than 17,000km away, and worry that some of the world's cleanest sea water may be at risk from contamination if exploration is approved, which in turn could endanger the health of the huge marine mammals that ply the waters.
"In the initial stages of exploration there is a risk of damage to some of the whale populations through seismic activity, but the really big concern is around oil spills. There is a very real risk, especially in deep water, that we will end up with a large spill," warned Tim Nicol, a marine campaign co-ordinator for the Conservation Council of Western Australia. The dazzling natural beauty of Margaret River, 280km south of Perth, is matched by an unforgettable array of marine species that sustains a whale-watching industry generating 50 million Australian dollars (Dh160m) annually. The aqua blue waters are a haven for whales and dolphins drawn to the nutrients that swell to the surface from the ocean depths.
"The largest population of humpbacks in the world travels along our coast from Antarctica up to the Kimberley where they give birth. We also have the Southern Right whale, which uses this particular piece of coast for calving, so it is their breeding grounds," Mr Nicol said. Pilot, grey and sperm whales also frequent the area off Western Australia, while the mighty blue whale, the world's largest mammal, often thrills onlookers by guiding its massive frame close to the shore.
Concerns that the health of marine life could be harmed in the hunt for fuels have been heightened not only by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill but by a serious accident last year on a rig in the Timor Sea, which contaminated a wide area off Australia's north-western coast. "What the Montara oil spill [in the Timor Sea] and the recent Gulf spill have shown is that this myth that oil drilling is safe is not true but also that the industry is not really equipped to respond," added Mr Nicol.
The Mentelle Basin off Margaret River is among more than 30 sites released for oil and gas exploration this year by the Australian government. The deep water pocket is about 75km out to sea in an area currently under consideration as a possible marine sanctuary. Urging federal authorities to abandon the project, opponents have mounted a vociferous online campaign and other protests on the region's beaches.
Australia's 30 billion Australian dollars oil and gas industry has assured its critics that deepwater drilling can be safe, despite high-profile catastrophes elsewhere. Mark McCallum, deputy chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, which represents 80 of the nation's oil and gas companies, said: "The tragic accidents in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Timor Sea have really led people to ask some serious questions about the industry and for us we must learn from these incidents as quickly as possible.
"We have been already undertaking massive reviews of our exploration and operation programme to re-engender the confidence in our industry that the community has had for the last 40 years." He added: "Montara was the first incident of its type in 25 years in Australia, so we have had a fairly good record and we need to learn from these incidents to make sure that we minimise the chance of them ever happening again."
About a dozen offshore rigs are operating in Australian waters, which produce mostly lighter crude. Mr McCallum said this pumping generally spills between 1,000 to 2,000 litres of oil into the sea each year, an amount he said is the rough equivalent of a typical suburban rainwater tank. The industry has a dedicated marine oil spill centre and emergency equipment is on standby at drilling sites in sensitive areas around the coast, including the spectacular Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia.
Industry representatives have insisted that Australia, which was self-sufficient in oil up until 2000, urgently needs new sources and greater levels of exploration. The country imports 50 per cent of its oil supplies, a figure expected to rise to two-thirds within five years. In Canberra, the environment minister, Peter Garrett, has promised that any new projects must comply with strict guidelines. "I think that what we've seen in the US obviously raises high levels of apprehension about issues to do with potential accidents, particularly drilling as deep as in the Gulf of Mexico. There's nothing that's risk free but what we have to do is work very closely with industry to make sure that risks are absolutely minimised," the minister stated.
The federal government is expected to make a final decision on the exploration off Margaret River over the next 18 months. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org