New oil leases make a mockery of Australian marine protection plans

It’s often suggested that governments seek to release bad news when people are least likely to be looking, and by most people’s reckoning Friday is a good day to bury bad news. Although I’m sure the oil and gas industry won’t view it as bad news, the Friday just gone was certainly bad news for marine protection and the whales and dolphins that live off the coast of North-western Australia.

On Friday the Minister for Resources and Energy announced the awarding of nine new offshore permits for oil and gas exploration in one of the most pristine tropical marine environments in the world and Australia’s last great whale haven.

Together these permits herald a likely 14,000 km2 of new seismic exploration, and 17 new wells. The International Fund for Animal Welfare recently published report highlighted the dangers to whales and dolphins of ocean noise pollution from sources such as seismic surveys and drilling, and the inadequacies of the current protection regime.

The report also highlighted some key areas for whales and dolphins in the North-west, including the waters around Rowley Shoals and off Ningaloo Reef, where most of these new leases are situated.

At the same time as the Minister for Resources and Energy is handing out leases, the Minister for Environment is asking the public to comment on which areas of the North-west marine environment should be protected. The public comment period isn’t even closed yet but that doesn’t seem to stop oil and gas developments from ploughing ahead.

The awarding of new leases at this time makes a mockery of the Government’s proposals to developed marine protected areas. How can it be a genuine consultation on where should be protected when the most harmful activities in the region, those of the oil and gas industry, appear exempt?

IFAW has written to the Minister for Resources and Energy seeking his assurance that no more leases will be handed out while the Government decides on marine protected areas in the North-west, as recommended by our recent report. We eagerly await his reply.

Until then, however, it is vital that we generate as many public responses to the Government’s proposals for marine protected areas, demanding that more of the pristine North-west is protected from the many threats of the oil and gas industry. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect our last great whale haven. We have to speak out. So if you haven’t already done so, please send a submission today.

In the meantime, IFAW is calling on the oil and gas companies involved to live up to the rhetoric of their environmental credentials and refrain from harmful activities in these areas until, at the very least, the final shape of the marine reserves network is known.

-- MC

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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