Oil spill threatens ocean as driller faces multimillion bill
COMMENT: From the It Would Never Happen Here Department
THE operator of an oil rig responsible for a massive oil leak off the West Australian coast will be forced to pay millions of dollars to clean up the spill, which authorities warn poses a serious threat to the environment.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority yesterday launched a major clean-up operation as oil and gas continued to seep from a 1200-metre-deep well drilled by the West Atlas - an oil rig located 690 kilometres west of Darwin, 250 kilometres off the far north Kimberley coast and 150 kilometres south-east of Ashmore Reef.
The spill, which is eight nautical miles long and 30 metres wide, began early on Friday, forcing the evacuation of 69 workers to Darwin.
The company responsible for the rig, PTTEP Australasia, said the leak had not yet been brought under control.
PTTEP director Jose Martins said the leak was mainly gas, with a much lower oil content than when the spill began, but the related fire risk meant it was impossible to get back on to the platform.
''So that option for bringing the leak under control is ruled out for now,'' he said.
He said early reports that poisonous hydrogen sulphide gas had been released were wrong.
The company has called in gas and oil spill experts to help with the clean-up.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority was put in charge of the operation after the size of the spill became apparent. It warned that the remote location of the rig would make the clean-up difficult.
Authority chief executive Graham Peachey said it was too early to determine the environmental impact, cost, or when the leak would be stopped.
''It hasn't been contained but the slick hasn't grown overnight, and indications are it is either breaking down or evaporating as quickly as it is leaking out of the ocean floor, but all of that has to be confirmed by the science,'' Mr Peachey said.
While the slick remained a long way offshore and had not moved closer to the coastline, Mr Peachey said the environmental threat remained serious.
''Oil on the water is not good for the environment. What we are trying to do is mitigate the risks to the environment and to do so as quickly as we can.''
The authority has chartered a Hercules aircraft from Singapore to spray the slick with about 50 tonnes of chemicals to help disperse the oil. Two more aircraft are on standby for support.
Mr Peachey said the clean-up would be expensive but he would not speculate on the final bill.
He said only that the authority had insisted that PTTEP agree to meet the cost.
''I'd be speculating, but you can imagine, we've got two aircraft on the spot, we've got personnel all round the north, we've got a Hercules chartered from Singapore, and we've got a lot of stockpile of dispersant moved up there, so this is going to cost a lot,'' he said.
One of the evacuated rig workers told ABC Radio his colleagues had detected a gas leak and observed bubbling around one of the platform's 1200-metre-deep drilling holes.
He said the rig had been evacuated after concerns that hydrogen sulphide was leaking from the area.
Australian Marine Conservation Society director Darren Kindleysides said there was huge potential for damage to unique marine biodiversity.
''With the west continuing to grow as a frontier for oil and gas exploration, this could become more regular,'' Mr Kindleysides said.
WA Greens senator and the party's marine spokeswoman, Rachel Siewert, accused the company of withholding information and said the clean-up plan was taking too long.
''We should be putting out emergency response equipment much closer to those sites so that we don't have to wait 24 hours,'' Senator Siewert said.Posted by Arthur Caldicott on 22 Aug 2009