Government approves drilling near Ningaloo

By AAP and AG staff 8 July 2011
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The federal government has allowed an oil company to drill near the newly declared World Heritage area.

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT HAS given energy giant Shell the go-ahead to drill an exploration well near the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef without referring the proposal for environmental review.

The Department of Environment says Shell can drill the Palta-1 well, about 50km west off the edge of the Ningaloo Marine Park offshore Western Australia, if it abides by certain conditions. These include taking measures to avoid significant impacts on threatened species and migratory species such as whales, according to a ‘Notification of Referral Decision’ document lodged by the Department of Environment.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said a departmental delegate determined the proposed action did not require further assessment under national environmental law.

“It is appropriate for the department to provide me with advice on whether environmental law is triggered by any proposal,” the minister said in a statement. “Not everything comes within the jurisdiction of my legal powers and when advice says it is beyond the legal jurisdiction of the federal government then I really do have to accept that advice.”

Safe operations

Shell said it intended to operate the well safely and without any environmental impacts on the Ningaloo region.

“We are mindful of the significant biodiversity and heritage values of the Ningaloo region and we continue to plan our operations accordingly,” Shell said on Thursday in a statement on its website. “The Exmouth Sub-basin is an important region for oil and gas production in Australia with existing exploration and production facilities operating safely in the region for many years.”

World Wildlife Fund WA director Paul Gamblin said the federal government’s decision deeply worried the conservation group. It was particularly concerning, he said, considering the Commonwealth had identified the areas surrounding Ningaloo as prime candidates for being declared an extension to the existing marine park.

“It is very concerning that the government, as it is doing that, is also allowing any oil and gas activities so close to the reef, an area that is fully protected,” Paul said. “The development arm of government is very much outpacing the conservation arm.”

Conservationists held grave concerns about the potential for an oil spill in the Ningaloo area, he added. “They should not allow high risk activities. This drilling operation will be one of the deepest ever in Australia at about 1300m, which is very deep, and it’s on a slope as well, so it’s technically challenging.

“If there were to be a spill in that kind of environment, which is also very cyclone prone, it would be very difficult to deal with,” he said.