Bill McCormick, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources
The issue of marine oil pollution has become topical with
several major oil spills occurring in 2009 and 2010. Despite
improvements in control technologies, spills can have a significant
impact on coastal and marine environments and thus on the
livelihoods of those in the fishing and tourism industries. The
Australian Maritime Safety Authority coordinates the response to
oil spills under the National Plan to Combat Pollution of the Sea
by Oil and Other Noxious and Hazardous Substances.
Recent oil well blowouts
The Montara Wellhead Platform blowout on
21 August 2009 resulted in the spillage of oil and gas
into the Timor Sea. The spill lasted 74 days until a relief
well was drilled and the well could be capped. The rig operator
(PTTEP Australasia) initially estimated that 64 tonnes per day
(400 barrels) of crude oil were being lost but no accurate
estimate was ever made of the spillage. The oil slick caused damage
to the waters and coastline of Indonesia and East Timor. In
November 2009 the Australian Government set up the Montara
Commission of Inquiry. The Commission report was submitted to the
Minister for Resources and Energy in June 2010, who has not
yet released it publicly.
On 20 April 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico, a blowout
caused an explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig
at BP’s Macondo Prospect. The leak was finally stopped on
15 July 2010. The failed blowout preventer was replaced
in early September 2010. Initially between 53 000 and
62 000 barrels of oil were leaking daily, although this
decreased over time. The total spill is estimated to have been
4.9 million barrels. An estimated
6.4 million litres of dispersant were sprayed on the
surface of the water or added at the wellhead at the seafloor.
Thirty seven per cent of the US federal waters in
the Gulf were closed to fishing at the height of the spill. In June
2010 BP agreed to set up a $20 billion claims fund to cover
the liabilities for the spill. By September 2010 BP had spent an
estimated $8 billion on the clean-up.
Recent ship oil spills
Significant shipping traffic occurs through the Great Barrier
Reef (GBR) Region and along the east coast of Australia. In 2009
the cargo ship, the Pacific Adventurer, leaked more than
270 tonnes of fuel oil which polluted the beaches of Moreton
Island, Bribie Island and the Sunshine Coast. The Shen Neng
1, a bulk coal carrier that ran aground, spilled
three tonnes of fuel oil and gouged a three-kilometre long
channel in the reef in April 2010. A Pacific
Adventurer-sized spill within the GBR Marine Park could have
damaged a significant area of reef.
Compulsory pilotage has been introduced for specific routes
through the northern portion of the GBR and the Torres Strait.
There have been calls for extension of this pilotage for
significant portions of shipping routes within the rest of the GBR
Region. The Shen Neng 1 was off course by 12 kilometres.
As part of the response to improve safety issues arising from the
Shen Neng grounding, the Australian Maritime Safety
Authority decided against extending compulsory pilotage within the
GBR and instead extended the current coverage of the Reef Vessel
Traffic Service to the southern boundary of the
In 1992 the International Convention for the Prevention of
Pollution by Ships made it mandatory for new oil tankers ordered
after 1993 to be fitted with double hulls to reduce the risk of oil
spills. More recent amendments require the phasing-out of single
hull tankers by 2010.
Oil spills affect marine life through the direct toxicity of
oil, by the smothering effects of the oil on plants and animals,
and by coating beaches and rocky shore habitats. The toxicity and
physical properties of oil change over time. Chemicals used to
disperse oil and increase the rate of breakdown can themselves be
toxic to marine life. There are long-term impacts of oil spills and
they need to be assessed. The Australian Government and PTTEP
Australasia, in response to the Montara oil spill, have agreed to a
two to ten year monitoring plan that includes scientific studies to
provide information on marine life, wildlife and habitats, water
quality and shoreline ecology.
Oil spill compensation
There are limits to the amount of compensation that shipping
companies and oil exploration companies are liable for under
Under the Civil Liability Convention tanker owners are required
to maintain insurance to cover pollution damage up to a maximum of
$170 million. Where the damage exceeds this limit the
Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for
Compensation for Oil Pollution provides additional compensation of
up to $1.2 billion. For non-tankers, the Bunker Convention
provides liability based on ship size, so a 30 000 tonne ship
would be liable for $23 million.
As part of the permit/approval process, the operators of Montara
and other offshore oil wells are required to maintain adequate
insurance to cover clean-up costs or other remediation effects of
oil spills but not for compensation for environmental damage.
In July 2010, Indonesian President Yudhoyono said he would
seek compensation from PTTEP Australasia for seaweed farmers and
fishermen whose livelihoods were affected by the Montara oil
spill—this may amount to over $2 billion. East Timorese
President Ramos-Horta was also seeking compensation from the
company and the Australian Government for damage to the marine
environment in East Timor.
It would seem there is a need for a broader regulatory system
for compensation of pollution damage covering offshore oil
exploration and production similar to the Conventions that cover
Impact on offshore oil exploration
After the recent well blow-outs, the US Federal Government and
the Australian Government responded but with several differences.
The depth of water in which these wells were drilled was
significantly different, with Montara being drilled in about
80 metres of water while the Macondo well was drilled in about
1500 metres. Wells are being drilled in increasingly deep
water, creating significant difficulties in controlling any
blows-outs, as the Macondo disaster demonstrated.
Unlike the Australian Government, which continued to award
offshore exploration permits while waiting on the recommendations
of the Montara Commission of Inquiry, the US Government ordered a
six-month moratorium on deep water drilling while existing rigs
were being inspected. A US Federal Court Judge in New Orleans
blocked the ban but the ruling is subject to appeal. Amendments to
legislation presently before the US Congress could bar companies
from access to offshore areas if the companies have been heavily
fined for air or water pollution.
Deep water oil exploration presents significant issues as to how
to respond to blow-outs. The compensation implications of spills
such as from Macondo can be potentially catastrophic for all but
the largest oil companies. Will the Australian Government be liable
to cover any shortfall?
Library publications and key documents
Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Major oil
spills in Australia,
Article corrected 5 December 2018.