Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Timor Sea oil slick may now be lapping Indonesian shores

The West Timor Care Foundation has sent the Australian Greens a video claiming the 10-week Montara oil spill is now lapping the south shores of the island of Timor. The five minute video shows some oil slicks and dead fish in local fishing grounds (though when I entered the location coordinates shown in the video it oddly came up in Philippine waters). The government also doubts the slick has approached the Indonesian coastline and has announced no compensation measures as yet.

But while there is doubt over this video, there is little doubt that that Montara spill is a major catastrophic event happening most out of reach of Australian news cameras. From 21 August to 3 November a possible 140,000 barrels of light crude oil, gas and condensate leaked into the sea. Well owners PTTEP claimed the well leaked 400 barrels of oil a day but could never back up this estimate. The Australian government said the maximum flow could be as much as 2,000 barrels a day. After four unsuccessful attempts to fix it, it was eventually plugged when heavy mud was successfully injected into the underground leaking well. The spill was complicated by a major fire on the rig which was put out two days earlier.

But the vast amount of oil leaked into the sea continues to cause havoc. Both West and East Timor authorities have asked Australia to take urgent actions to stop the impact on their island. The governor of East Nusa Tenggara (Indonesian West Timor) said Australia must take “immediate measures” to halt the spill. Meanwhile East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta says the slick is impacting local fishermen’s livelihood and has requested compensation from Australia.

The Montara wellhead on the West Atlas rig is in Australian waters 250km northwest of the Truscott air base in Western Australia's Kimberley region and another 250km from the south Timor coastline. The rig is owned by Thai based oil company PTT Exploration and Production Public Company (commonly known as PTTEP) and run by its Australian subsidiary PTTEP Australasia Company Limited (PTTEP AA).

The problem started when a concrete plug 2.6km below the ocean floor cracked open leaking sweet crude oil, gas and condensate into the Timor Sea. The cause is not yet been announced. However an unnamed industry insider told WAtoday.com PTTEP knows what caused the problem. The source was working for PTTEP near the West Atlas rig on the day the leak occurred. He said one of six wells they were drilling began to leak because the company took corners by not plugging the well securely because they did not expect oil flow.

The company then went into panic mode as their increasingly desperate efforts failed to plug the leak. After three failed attempts, they invited Texan well control company Boots & Coots to review their operation. Other local industry companies Woodside, Inpex, Vermillion, AGR Petroleum Services and Apache also became involved on a “without prejudice” basis (to avoid liability) as the reputation of the Australian oil drilling industry plummeted. The rig then caught fire on the fourth attempt and took three days to put out. The leak was eventually plugging by steering a drill through rock 2.6km below the seabed to a 25cm diameter pipe.

After the problem was fixed, Resource Minister Martin Ferguson announced an inquiry into the matter to be headed by former senior public servant David Borthwick. The terms of reference are to report on the causes, the adequacy of the regulatory regime in response, the performance of those carrying out the response, environmental impacts and PTTEP’s role. Borthwick will have six months to carry out his investigation. The Australian Marine Conservation Society said the oil slick will leave a legacy for decades and called on the government to impose heavy sanctions and penalties on those responsible.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert is also concerned the consequential impacts to Indonesia and East Timor may be outside Borthwick’s terms of reference. Minister Ferguson claims the spill is over 200kms from the Indonesian coastline. But Siewart called on the government to investigate the Timorese reports of oil contamination to see if they are linked to the Montara rig. "Australians expect that we will do the right thing by our near neighbours,” she said. “The Prime Minister needs to promise that he will ensure the company takes responsibility for impacts outside of Australian waters.”

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