The Exxon Valdez oil spill was 20 years ago this year. With a third-mate at the helm while the captain was probably drunk, the giant oil tanker ran into a reef off Alaska’s Prince William Sound and spilled 10 million litres of oil. Twenty years on, the oil giant Exxon Mobil — the world’s most profitable company in 2009 — is still fighting Alaskan fishermen and Inuit plaintiffs in US courts, trying to get the damages against it reduced.
The Exxon Valdez spill was undoubtedly a public relations disaster for the company, but it’s hard to argue it has had any material effect on the corporation’s profits or operations. The tanker has been repaired and, according to Wikipedia, is still sailing under the name SR Mediterranean and is operated by a wholly owned subsidiary of Exxon Mobil.
Now we are facing a serious oil slick of our own. On Friday, the West Atlas oil and gas rig in the Timor Sea sprang a leak somewhere down its roughly 3.5 kilometres of drilling pipes. Oil started leaking out and is expected to continue to do so for up to 50 days. A 14 kilometre oil slick has spread out from the rig on the surface of the Timor Sea.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has responsibility for maritime accidents in Australian waters and has appeared to act quickly on the incident, sending at least two planes to spray chemical dispersants on the water to try and break up the spill. Meanwhile the parent company that owns the rig, the Thai-owned PTTEP, is "rushing" a relief drilling rig from Singapore to try and contain the spill. It will still take around three weeks for the relief rig to reach the spill site.
Even the Australian Maritime Safety Authority agrees this is a major catastrophe. "It’s certainly a big spill," ASMA spokeswoman Tracey Jiggins told the ABC. "It is a major operation, so I’d certainly say it is one of the most serious spills that we’ve had in recent years."
The spill has predictably drawn fierce criticism from green groups and parliamentarians such as Bob Brown. Referring to the proposed $50 billion Gorgon gas development trumpeted by the Federal Resources Minister last week, Brown said "Martin Ferguson says there’s no way there’ll be environmental problems with Gorgon. Well, it’s much bigger [than the West Atlas]and of course this makes his assertion about the massive Gorgon development laughable."
"Clearly, spills like this will occur where there is drilling for oil and gas and they’re an enormous environmental hazard, even though, at the end of the day, companies pay zip for the environmental damage that’s done."
Part of the issue Brown is referring to here is the decision — still to be made by Environment Minister Peter Garrett — over whether to give federal regulatory approval for the massive Gorgon development. While Gorgon will mainly be drilling, extracting and then liquefying natural gas (which will then be exported in massive ships as LNG), the development pressures it will exert on the pristine Kimberley wilderness will be significant.
But does anyone seriously believe Peter Garrett will block the development? The Rudd Government made a special set-piece announcement of the deal in Parliament last week, even excusing Martin Ferguson from his Question Time duties so he could fly to China to announce the coup.
Last month, newmatilda.com explored the boundless "quarry mentality" that dominates Australian energy policy and is driven by what appears to be a very personal commitment from Martin Ferguson to the endless growth of Australian extraction industries. The rush to approve the Gorgon development is no exception. So hungry is the Western Australian Government for resource riches that it has already given the project environmental approval. It’s amazing how "environmental approval" always seems such a formality for multi-billion dollar projects.
Don’t worry: Minister Garrett insists that this oil spill "won’t affect" his decision on Gorgon. Feel reassured? The LNG industry certainly does. After all, following a vocal campaign by Woodside boss, Don Voelte, they’ve already extracted a government concession for 66 per cent of their prospective carbon permits for free. That’s billions of dollars you, me and the rest of the economy will have to pay through higher household bills and other flow-on costs, just to quieten down the shrill squawks of the LNG rent-seekers.
And who is one of the key corporate players running the Gorgon development? None other than Exxon Mobil.
But when it comes to Western Australian resources, money has always talked louder than the environment.