Oil spills

By Rebecca Baker 7 November 2013
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The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a timely reminder of how dangerous petroleum exploration can be. Australia’s oil spills are not insignificant though.

MANY OF US RELY heavily on petroleum products in our daily lives, from plastics to petrol, but this comes at a price – the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico is, at the moment, a daily reminder of that.

In Australia, almost 90 per cent of our petroleum wealth is found offshore with up to 100 wells drilled every year.

The extraction of these products is expensive, very difficult and dangerous. At home in Australian, oil spills most often occur from ship grounding or pipeline accidents rather than exploration processes.

Either way, oil spills can have devastating effects. We’ve all seen the recent pictures of slimy black beaches and sickly birds covered in gunk in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, for every animal that is recovered dead, tens to hundreds of animals die unseen.

Professor Peter Steinberg, director of the Centre for Marine Bio-innovation at the University of New South Wales says that oil damages marine life in a number of ways. “Much of the damage is through its coating effect,” he says. “For marine birds and mammals, it coats their feathers or fur, decreasing their main layer of thermal protection … Given the current catastrophe in the Gulf, offshore oil rigs are not perfectly safe for the marine environment.”

It’s difficult to tell whether a particular rig is hazardous or not, but deep sea drilling is considered dangerous. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill came from the offshore, semi-submersible rig the Deepwater Horizon. Australia also has semi-submersible rigs like this one; however, most of Australia’s rigs lay off the coast of Western Australia and Queensland.

Deepwater rigs usually operate in depths 7,500 feet and greater – and this depth brings a greater risk of an oil spill.

The Australian Government is in the process of reviewing the regulations governing petroleum industry activities, which are predicted to be completed this year.

Australia’s worst oil spills are small in comparison to the largest spills in the world, but they’re not insignificant.

Last year, the West Atlas semi-submersible rig, off the coast of Western Australia, went up in flames. This spill is considered the worst oil-platform spill Australia has seen. The rig leaked 400 barrels of oil a day, over ten weeks, (estimated to be 3600 tonnes) into the Timor Sea, seriously damaging the surrounding marine life.

In comparison, the world’s largest oil spill occurred in 1991 during The Gulf War in Kuwait, where 520 million gallons were intentionally spilt across the land and into the Persian Gulf in an attempt to stop the United States military invading the area. The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is catching up at a considerable rate, and experts believe that it is now the worst spill in US history. Upper estimates are that it’s leaking 100,000 barrels of oil per day.