Storm on the Coastline

Concerns over Shell’s Plans in Exmouth

Click to view in E-Magazine

-By John Boley

The furore over Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to develop the Prelude liquefied natural gas venture and explore for oil and gas in the Exmouth basin off the north-west coast of Western Australia – within 50km of the world-famous Ningaloo reef – has again polarised industry and society on the issues of the extent to which natural wonders should be protected from or subservient to resource exploitation.

Ningaloo was the scene of one of the biggest environmental battles in Western Australia in recent years when conservationists led by author Tim Winton stopped a tourist resort being built in 2004.

The United Nations World Heritage Committee is expected to soon finalise its assessment of a nomination for Ningaloo put forward last year by the federal and West Australian governments and, predictably, environmentalist groups were quick to voice their displeasure at Shell’s plans.

Shell’s application to explore in permit area WA-384-P comes hard on the heels of the Montara oil spill and BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. With unusual transparency, the company itself admits there is a possibility of “minimal damage” to the reef in case of an accident or spill.

A leak of the size that recently hit the Montara oil well off the northern WA coast in the Timor Sea would almost certainly cause significant damage to the Ningaloo environment. Shell itself is sure that a worst-case scenario (defined as 70,000 gallons per day escaping onto the seabed for 77 days) would see oil mainly travel away from or parallel to the shallower coastal reef where whales migrate. Yet it acknowledged that areas that still had a “low probability” of being impacted were the middle and southern sections of the North West Cape, the islands at the entrance to Shark Bay (Dirk Hartog, Bernier and Dorre Island), the coastline along the Zuytdorp cliffs and the Abrolhos Islands. Shell must receive “all necessary environmental and safety approvals” before it can proceed with the drilling, Claire Wilkinson, a Perth-based spokeswoman for the company, told WA Now.

Timing of the drilling at the Australian gas prospect will depend on rig availability and may occur any time through the third quarter of 2012, Shell said in documents filed on March 4 on the Australian Environment Department’s website. Shell had received Australian government approval for the project last November.

The controversy centres on a plan to drill an initial test well to a depth of 5,650m near Ningaloo, which is 260km long and is Australia’s largest fringing coral reef. It is the only large reef positioned very close to a landmass and is known for its seasonal feeding concentrations of whale sharks, which feed there during March to June. The reef is also rich in coral and other marine life. During the winter months, the reef is part of migratory routes for dolphins, dugongs, manta rays and humpback whales. The beaches of the reef are an important breeding ground of the loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles.

WWF’s Paul Gamblin told media the application went to the heart of a much “bigger picture” about the divide between tapping much needed resources and nature tourism. “There’s a real clash in the value of natural assets and oil and gas in the region. Montara was further offshore and the liability cannot be underestimated. Only luck prevented the oil reaching the Kimberley shore. Fifty kilometres is nothing for an oil spill. The environment is more and more coming under pressure, not just from oil spills. The bigger story is how do we protect, are we really protecting our most fragile and precious asset?”

It was important that environmental assessments were done outside the marine park, which currently had not ever been undertaken, to determine what should be off limits, he added. Seismic vibrations impacted on sea turtles, fish and whales that frequent the area, famous for the world’s largest so-called “fringing” reef, located just metres offshore rather than far out to sea as in the case of the Great Barrier Reef. Gamblin said the federal government had so far provided “ad hoc” approvals for exploration, based on too little independent scientific research, at the “rate of knots”.

But not everyone in the region shares the WWF’s worries. The Shire of Exmouth believes the proposal will not affect tourism. Shire president Ronnie Fleay says the project should not come as a surprise because Shell has kept the community well informed.

She says there are already operations closer to the reef than the Shell proposal. “I don’t think it will have any impact to be honest, none of the others have, in fact tourists are quite fascinated to stand on our hill where our lighthouse is and to be able to see the flaring out there on the platforms,” she said. “I don’t think the tourists in general will even know they are there.”

Mid-2010, business and community groups in Exmouth renewed calls for the Ningaloo coast’s nomination for World Heritage Listing to be scrapped. Barry Sullivan from the Exmouth Chamber of Commerce and Industry argued the listing would hamper development and make little difference to tourism.

“The fear is I guess the history of places like Shark Bay who have stagnated since their nomination,” he said. “There’s been very little, if any increase in tourism. The issue is that this is our last hurrah, if we do not get a fair and equitable hearing in this then the nomination will go ahead as it stands.”

Then acting premier Kim Hames (now deputy premier) said the state government would do all it can to protect Ningaloo reef in the midst of the expanding oil and gas industry. The state has a role in the approvals process and will protect the region. “We want to make sure that Ningaloo reef as a system is protected and we have concerns because of the oil spills in parts of the world,” he said. Federal resources minister Martin Ferguson said Shell would follow “stringent processes in place to ensure all exploration for, and extraction of, petroleum resources were undertaken in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”

The industry beyond Australia’s coastline is watching the development of the Ningaloo case with interest. If the hue and cry dies down – and more importantly if Shell succeeds in exploring without damaging the reef – the cause of co-existence between resources and environment will have been advanced.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

November 21, 2018, 3:44 AM AEDT