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Oct 26, 2009

Australia’s shame – the Timor Sea oil spill disaster in pictures

This is a disaster of not only local, but regional and international proportions. The impending arrival of the seasonal monsoonal cycle in the coming months will substantially change the nature and location of the impact of this massive spill.

I am at a loss as to why this marine disaster has hardly registered on the Australian radar – press coverage appears to have been piecemeal at best, with little comprehensive coverage of the local, regional and international consequences.

The political response has been limited to hand-wringing stop-gap measures and to paying for a series of failed attempts to plug the spill and some apparently ineffective mopping-up operations.

Atlas West oil rig. Photograph: /Kimberley Whale Watching/WWF
Atlas West oil rig. Photograph: Chris Twomey, office of Ausralian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert

This is a disaster of not only local, but regional and international proportions. And, while the weather conditions in and around the Timor Sea are relatively stable at present, the impending arrival of the seasonal monsoonal cycle in the coming months will substantially change the nature and location of the impact of this massive spill.

The Jakarta Post reports today that the slick is already in Indonesian waters and is causing illness and will have a substantial economic affect on traditional fishers and harvesters on Rote Island:

Four weeks after the oil spill, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) submitted an official report to the Indonesian government mentioning that volumes of crude oil had entered the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone, some 51 nautical miles from Rote Island.

Traditional fishermen operating off Pasir Island found an oil slick resembling a pool around 20 miles from Tablolong beach in Kupand, or around 30 nautical miles from Kolbano, South Central Timor regency.

Last week, fishermen on the coast of Rote Ndao regency started complaining of illnesses as a result of the oil spill that had reached land and damaged thousands of hectares of ready-to-harvest seaweed.

“Seaweed, which is one of the province’s prime commodities, has been polluted. If the farmers fail to harvest their seaweed, they would incur losses of up to billions of rupiah,” said the West Timor Care Foundation NGO director Ferdi Tanoni.

And the Timor Oil spill has been picked up by East Timorese bloggers here and here.

The West Atlas oil rig in the Timor Sea, operated by the Thai-owned PTTEP Australasia, blew on August 21 and has leaked over 400,000 litres of oil, gas and condensate into the Timor Sea at a rate of reported variously as being from 300 to 1,200 barrels a day.

The Fairfax Press reports that Greens Senator Bob Brown believes those figures underestimate the true position – though no material was provided in support of his claim that:

The Greens believe anywhere from 10 to 20 million litres of oil has spilled into the ocean since the leak began on August 21.

Three attempts to plug the hole – by means of intercepting the pipe more than 2.5 kilometres below the sea bed – have been unsuccessful.

A fourth attempt had earlier been abandoned but was apparently to take place sometime yesterday, Sunday October 25.

Photograph: Debra Glasgow/WWF

As Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett told the ABC he is:

…confident everything possible is being done to stop the oil leak.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s a fiendishly difficult exercise – a little bit like threading the needle – to try to get this oil spill stopped,” he said.

And a fiendishly expensive one – estimates by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority given to the Australian Senate are that it has cost more that $AU5.3 million to date.

Area of the oil spill in the Timor Sea. Photograph: MODIS/Terra/NASAS
What 25,000 square kilometres of oil slick looks like. Photograph: MODIS/Terra/NASAS

The most comprehensive report I’ve been able to find on this oil spill is this article published last Friday in The Guardian by Toni O’Loughlin.

O’Loughlin’s article relies extensively on a series of reports by the World Wildlife Fund Australia.

Sea snake swimming in sludge. Photograph: Chris Sanderson/WWF
Sea snake swimming in sludge. Photograph: Chris Sanderson/WWF

WWF are the only external independent agency to conduct a survey of the area affected by the spill.

WWF says that:

Dolphins, migratory sea birds and sea snakes were found in abundance in the area, in addition to marine turtles, and many of these species were recorded swimming through the toxic oil affected area during WWF’s recent expedition to Timor Sea…”We recorded hundreds of dolphins and sea birds in the oil slick area, as well as sea snakes and threatened hawksbill and flatback turtles,” said WWF-Australia’s Director of Conservation Dr Gilly Llewellyn, who led the team of ecologists.

Overall the expedition recorded 17 species of seabird, four species of cetacean and five marine reptiles including two species of marine turtle. At least eleven of the species were listed migratory and two – hawksbill and flatback turtles – are listed as threatened with extinction under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

On Wednesday, PTTEP, the company responsible for the oil slick, reported high levels of mortality among oil- affected seabirds. “Clearly, wildlife is dying and hundreds if not thousands of dolphins, seabirds and sea-snakes are being exposed to toxic oil. The critical issue is the long term impact of this slick on a rich marine ecosystem, taking into consideration the magnitude, extent and duration of the event,” said Dr Llewellyn. “We know that oil can be a slow and silent killer…we can expect this environmental disaster will continue to unfold for years to come.”

The true impacts of this most serious regional marine disaster will start to be felt – and recorded – in the Timor Sea in the coming weeks and are already having severe impacts on some parts of the Indonesian archipelago.

Just what will happen when the monsoon season starts and most likely disperses the spill over a greater area in the region – including back onto the Australian north-western coastline, remains to be seen.

But by then it may be too late.

You can see more of the WWF reports and survey here.

And more of the photographs collected at The Guardian’s Environment site here.

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22 thoughts on “Australia’s shame – the Timor Sea oil spill disaster in pictures

  1. Megan Roberts

    Thanks, some great data here keep up the good work. I actually allow for a more creative comment as I’m a bit out of my depth but I will be checking back here for further updates.
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  2. sompo zetchi

    suggestion tools that used to clean-up oil spills in the water and lands.

  3. icare

    Has this spill been cleaned up yet?? No media coverage at all – 8 months on has anything been done?

  4. maco

    There was some pretty shocking reporting at the start. It seemed like that media was intent on saying things werent that bad.

    I think I saw one report saying that the dispersant was likely to be worse than the oil (although the disperssant is not great, it was just plain stupid for anyone to say the oil would not create serious impacts). I saw another one that said that oil naturally leaks into the ocean and so it would all be ok!!! I couldnt quite believe my eyes when I saw that one.

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  6. Bellistner

    Maybe I’ve missed something, but what’s the problem with using the West Atlas rig to fix the leak? Has all the drilling equipment been removed? Did the on-rig fire damage it too much? Wells are regularly re-drilled to keep flow rates up (the wells tend to silt up over time), so why can’t the West Atlas rig send a bit down past the leak and fill it with concrete or put some other sort of block in place, and seal it up?

    I suspect that at least part of the reason there’s been little media coverage is the tactit acceptance by the media that it’s not a big deal (after all, the oil spill is outside the environment), and the company is an unknown (if it were ExxonMobil, or BP, the coverage might be different).
    Anyway, Marn is on record as saying “Australias future lie in finding a new Bass Strait”. With Bass Strait having already been discovered, the logical place for a new BS is at the other end of the country.

  7. Hochfelden

    Tyranny of Distance!!
    When you come to live in Australia from Europe like I did 7 years ago… you suddenly are aware of things that disappeared from the richer parts of Europe years ago. And the UK doesn’t count as Europe it’s just Australia with worse weather
    Plastic bags at Foodstores…in continental Europe you bring your own or have to pay $1 plus to by a reusable carrier bag. Landfill. Lack of any real recycling. Old cars just dumped on properties People (and I suspect businesses) that do their own oil changes on their vehicles and just dig a hole in their garden and bury the oil… the story goes. Australians are constantly being told they are one of the richest countries and one of the best re-cyclers and are wonderful guardians of their environment… which is patently untrue but both sides of politics and the resources industry that really run this country do a magnificent job telling the population otherwise.
    What a disaster we are leaving to the next generation!

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  9. Michael Wilbur-Ham

    It has certainly reached a stage where the opposition can claim government incompetence in handling the issue.

    If my theory is right then a good squabble between the major parties will bring this disaster back into the news, and perhaps even in a big way. And once the politics can be talked about, (without having to give major prominence to The Greens) it opens up the possibility of much more environmental reporting.

    If Bob Gosford is right then the environmental impact will not get much more coverage “due to public indifference”.

    Anyone like to guess what will happen?

  10. Bob Gosford

    Update: You can see the Opposition’s Environment spokesman Greg Hunt’s interview with Fran Kelly on the ABC yesterday here:
    Hunt has a go at Environment Minister Garrett for not driving AMSA hard enough on this issues and also notes that there is an international well-plugging industry out there – but this matter has been left to the company…
    Any thoughts?

  11. GWoody

    Why not media coverage – another perspective: Its hard to get an interesting angle that will sell. The photos above are not real striking (in terms of grabbing the public eye), there is no easy to relate to victim to grab the public heart, the issue has no clear direct impact on the average public purse. [ie in the next quarter :)]. It may be that the decision to publish or not to publish is based more on a public indifference to this issue and a consequential economic decision by the media, and less on a political party bias.

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  13. Michael Wilbur-Ham


    I agree that in any rational world this oil spill would be a huge media story.

    You asked why isn’t it.

    The only answer I can think of is that because Labor is wanting this exploration, and are the Government on duty at the time, so they want to keep this as quiet as they can.

    Of course the Liberals (and Nationals) are equally in favor of profit before environment, and so they also are keeping fairly quiet on the issue.

    The only political party trying to raise public awareness of this issue, and saying that this is not good enough, is The Greens.

    I’m suggesting that our media are so biased towards the two party monopoly, that in this case, having given the Greens a brief mention (ABC, don’t know about the rest) they are keeping quiet.

    The only reason I can think of for this disaster to have so little media attention is that the media do not want to criticize both major parties in favor of The Greens. That would be biased reporting!

    I remain open to any other rational explanations. As I said earlier, I can’t think of any.

  14. Bob Gosford

    Chris – apologies for the error – it was either mine or the Gruniad’s…is now fixed. re LindsayB’s comment – I noticed this but I think that because they may be two entirely separate matters that the govt may not have been able to refuse to grant on the basis of the spill…though you’d think they could have sat on their hands for a while – too few facts to comment further.
    As for MWB – I think the point of my comments and references is that this is not just a “green” issue – and that the looming monsoon and international issues may well see this escalate beyond a domestic issue – if it hasn’t done so already – and the monsoon may actually push some of this crap back onto our north-west coast.
    Re Chupachup – is there a gap in our supervision/enforcement of these matters – does anyone know – is it an international law issue?
    And to Heathero – sorry for making to sick – again!

  15. heathero

    Once again Bob I feel sick to the stomach, is PTTEP Australasia being fined for this? Why is the Federal environmental minister very quite on this? How the hell is Australia going to explain this one if it comes up at Copenhagen CCC in December?

  16. chupachup

    Bodes well for the Barrow Island marine reserve when gas activities start there, huh?

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  18. Chris Twomey

    Bob – your first photo is incorrectly attributed.
    I took it on a flight chartered by Senator Rachel Siewert, on a camera belonging to Kimberley Whale Watching.
    I am happy for you and WWF and others to use it (…and many have) but would like it to be credited properly.
    Chris Twomey, office of Senator Rachel Siewert, Australian Greens

  19. Michael Wilbur-Ham

    Calling a spade a bloody shovel, this issue has got little traction because giving it more political coverage would show extreme bias towards the “left”, and giving it too much environmental coverage would leave people asking questions about the politics.

    The Greens views have been covered briefly on some stations, so time to move on to the important issues, like any squabbles between the major parties.

    What is sad is that I am unable to think of any other reason for the lack of coverage 🙁

  20. lindsayb

    bewildering that the Australian government has given PTTEP Australasia the green light for future exploration before this well is stopped, the cause investigated, the massive slick cleaned up, or those affected (such as the Indonesian seaweed farmers) compensated.

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