Many people thought a battle had been won when the Great Barrier Reef
Marine Park (GBRMP) was declared in 1975 and oil drilling was
prohibited in the Park. But oil exploration in the Coral Sea and Great
Barrier Reef never ended. Oil industry interest in the region is high;
the political winds in Australia are pushing for development of a new
offshore oil field adjacent to one of the world’s most valued natural
Such an oil field would be one of the biggest in Australia. Visitors to the Reef - millions a year - would be greeted by oil rigs and tankers; spills could destroy both the communities and ecosystems of the Queensland coast.
The GBRMP is the world’s largest World Heritage area and the world’s largest marine park. The GBRMP was formed directly in response to threats from the oil industry. At 340,000 sq km, it is almost the size of England. It contains over 2,900 individual reefs, 54 percent of the world’s mangroves, and is home to the world’s most important surviving dugong populations.
In May 2000, Geoscience Australia (GA) - the Australian federal government agency responsible for promoting offshore oil exploration in Australian waters - received a proposal from Shell and Woodside petroleum companies. The proposal requested GA’s participation in a consortium that would map areas for potential release under the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act 1967, the process by which areas are opened up to commercial oil exploration and exploitation.
Included are the Townsville Trough, Queensland Trough and Plateau, and the Capricorn Basin. These areas make up the eastern border for much of the GBRMP.
This secret project to have vast areas of the Coral Sea adjacent to the GBRMP mapped for oil exploration purposes is not new. The stakes, however, are getting higher and the political push is getting stronger.
The petroleum prospects in the Townsville Trough and other basins adjacent to the GBRMP are believed to be approximately 5 billion barrels. This would make the region Australia’s richest offshore oil area.
Such drilling would seriously threaten the ecological and economic viability of the GBRMP.
Current law prohibits oil drilling inside the GBRMP. Few believe that the GBRMP is under direct and immediate threat of oil drilling, though there is evidence of petroleum prospecting within the park.
The greater and more immediate threat is to the known reserves in the Coral Sea directly adjacent to the Marine Park. Selling an oil industry adjacent to the GBRMP is not as difficult.
The danger of drilling in waters adjacent to the GBRMP has been highlighted in the last two years by shipping accidents. The inner channel of the GBRMP, which runs between the outer reef area and the coastline, is a major shipping route. In the last seven years, there have been 10 major groundings inside the GBRMP, almost all a result of pilot error. While no spills occurred, in one case explosives had to be used to destroy coral to free the ship.
The risks to the GBRMP associated with a massive increase in shipping - particularly of oil - are clear. But those risks don’t seem to concern the Australian Maritime Safety Association (AMSA). In 2000, AMSA reviewed shipping in the GBRMP in response to a major grounding by a cargo ship on a reef near Cairns. The report expressed concerns about limiting the use of the inner passage because “banning of petroleum industry ships could affect exploration and development of resources in the region outside the GBRMP and could negatively affect the economic viability of potential petroleum production in the Coral Sea.”
Australian environmentalists are upset that the Australian government, already a Kyoto renegade, would consider promoting such a major greenhouse industry adjacent to a marine park already suffering considerable degradation from rises in sea surface temperature.
History of oil and the reef
The history of oil exploration in the Barrier Reef area makes clear the deep involvement of government in a secret plan to open an area running virtually the entire length of the eastern border of the GBRMP. This history extends over 35 years.
In 1967, 80, 920 square miles of the as-yet-undeclared GBRMP had been leased by the Queensland government for oil and mineral exploration. Two exploratory wells were drilled, and dozens of oil companies were interested in the Coral Sea, including Shell, BP and Ampol. An announced test drilling in 1969 was a catalyst for Commonwealth intervention, the eventual cancellation of all leases and the establishment of the GBRMP in 1975. From 1969- 1975, extensive seismic work was conducted inside the eventual borders of the GBRMP by the Deep Sea Drilling Program (predecessor to the Ocean Drilling Project) and Shell. Seismic work is essential to oil exploration. The Commonwealth government still refuses to release the results of those surveys.
After the GBRMP was created in 1975, exploration ceased for several years.
While the GBRMP Act does prohibit drilling for oil inside the park, it does not prevent exploration, scientific expeditions, seismic testing or drilling for core samples. Seismic work in the area resumed in 1979. Geophysical Service International (GSI), an Australian division of Texas Instruments, sought and received permission to conduct seismic surveys over 15,000 kilometres (9,000 miles) in the Queensland Plateau, based on interest from oil companies including Esso Australia, Santos, Phillips Petroleum, BP and AGIP. Documents refer to GSI’s work as a “scientific survey.”
The results, which included last minute surveys inside the GBRMP, encouraged the oil companies. The Bureau of Mineral Resources (BMR)—later to become the Australian Geological Survey Organisation (AGSO) and then Geosciences Australia (GA)—noted that the “Queensland Plateau and Queensland and Townsville Troughs appear to have some prospects for petroleum and it would be desirable to include these areas within the adjacent area to which the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act applies.”
In 1984, petroleum exploration in the Coral Sea began to move almost exclusively into government hands. Commercial exploration interests found it increasingly difficult to engage in research outside of the public eye, but government activity was easily disguised as scientific work, which has fewer assessment and agency requirements.
The Queensland Plateau was the first site in BMR’s scope. An exploratory cruise was planned for 1985 under the agency’s fossil fuel program. BMR described the project as a “scientific study,” noting shortly afterwards in the text of the same document that the research “will prove valuable for exploration.” Part of the proposed research—both seismic surveys and core sampling—would take place inside GBRMP. The survey was to last three months.
In December 1984 the chief of BMR’s Division of Marine Geoscience and Petroleum Geology wrote to Graham Kelleher, the chair of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, regarding BMR’s survey plans inside the GBRMP. The letter claimed that the portions of the study that took place within the GBRMP would be purely scientific. Nonetheless, the project description was filled with references to the petroleum prospects of the region, particularly in the Townsville Trough and the Queensland Plateau. The study was designed to assess five areas adjacent to and sometimes overlapping with the GBRMP. For each area, assessment of petroleum and exploration opportunities was a stated objective.
In February 1985, Kelleher replied to BMR, “It is essential that geological coring of this nature with scientific objectives be justified and presented in a manner which will demonstrate that it is not related to hydrocarbon exploration.”
At the end of the 1985 cruise, BMR provided maps of the region to Bridge Oil. The agency’s public report on the cruise omitted any mention of petroleum exploration.
After that, commercial impetus for survey work in the region was increasingly hidden. All subsequent trips to the area were described as scientific. At no time were the underlying motives for the work questioned.
In 1987 another BMR cruise took place inside GBRMP, and in the Marion Plateau and Townsville Trough areas along the park boundary. The formal description of the cruise yet again made no direct mention of petroleum or hydrocarbons; however, under the “Consultation” section of the BMR proposal, a handwritten entry read, “interest in work in area expressed by Elf Aquitane and Crusader Oil.”
1990 was a significant year in the oil exploration of the GBRMP and Coral Sea. A 1990 Ocean Drilling Project (ODP) cruise - Leg 133 - drilled for core samples inside the GBRMP, with some holes as deep as 720 metres. The ODP is an international marine research program funded by governments, academic institutions, and industry. While there is little public documentation of the Leg 133 trip itself, a 1996 review of Australia’s participation in the ODP made it clear Leg 133 was particularly important to the oil industry:
“Of most importance to Australia, is [sic] the results of Leg 133, drilling on and adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef… The results are highly significant for both AGSO and the petroleum exploration industry.”
In 1990, Australia’s Federal Resources Minister Alan Griffiths issued a comprehensive program for release of offshore areas for exploration by oil companies in areas immediately adjacent to the eastern border of the GBRMP. Public outcry forced Prime Minister Bob Hawke two days later to reassure Australians that no exploration would be permitted that would endanger the GBRMP.
According to testimony given to Australia’s Senate this year, a decision was made in 1989 not to assess the petroleum potential of areas along the northeast margin of the park. “We completed a geological study but we made no reference to petroleum potential in light of the fact that there was no intention of releasing those areas,” said Dr. Trevor Powell, chief of GA’s Petroleum and Marine Division.
Despite the claim, the drive by GA to have these areas released is apparent throughout the study. The decision by GA not to mention petroleum didn’t mean the work undertaken wasn’t an assessment of potential petroleum reserves, nor did it prevent others from making their own conclusions regarding the potential of the area.
In the Department of Primary Industries and Energy’s 1990 “Offshore Strategy,” the Queensland Trough and the Capricorn Basin were slated for commercial release within a 6-10 year period. That release hasn’t happened only because the Government and GA have been unable to keep the lid on their plans, and Australians continue to demonstrate that they are unwilling for the areas to become oil fields.
In 2000, another significant push by oil interests began. In addition to the activities of GA and Shell/ Woodside, there were efforts by oil exploration companies, such as Infoterra and Seismic Australia, to seek work on the northeast margin of GBRMP.
In August 2002, a seismic exploration project by Houston-based TGS-NOPEC was put on hold, after a groundswell of criticism from environmental groups. The project would have involved seismic testing along thousands of miles of ocean floor, with seismic blasts happening more frequently than once a minute for 50 consecutive days, 24 hours a day. Outrage followed based on seismic testing’s devastating effect on marine life, and open public discussion ensued on TGS-NOPEC’s goal of oil extraction. The project received far more public scrutiny than the work of GA, despite the fact that GA is pushing for actual exploration and exploitation in the eastern margins. TGS-NOPEC ignored the rule that exploration in the Coral Sea must hide behind science. It has paid the price.
TGS-NOPEC also received far more scrutiny that the Ocean Drilling Project (ODP). In February 2001, the Joides Resolution, the 143-metre drilling platform flagship for the Ocean Drilling Program, arrived in Townsville, prepared for its latest drilling research. Leg 194 of the ODP ostensibly studied the history of climate change inside and adjacent to the park. The GBRMPA gave them a permit to drill 24 deep core holes inside the Park. The permit was issued on the basis that the research was “pure science.” There has been no impact assessment and no opportunity for public comment. Representative of the oil industry and the oil drilling industry took part in the cruise.
In 2002, in response to the accumulating evidence, the Australian Democrats introduced The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Boundary Extension) Amendment Bill 2002. The bill would effectively prohibit oil drilling eastward of the current boundaries of the GBRMP, to the limits of Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
The bill is now before the Senate, where it appears to have the support of the Labor Party, Australia’s largest opposition party. It lacks support from the conservatives in power, however. In early debate on the bill, the Government declared it “an act of economic vandalism,” a clear admission of industry and government desires to open up an area previously declared off-limits to full exploitation.
Should the bill not pass, to the broader policy failures of this Government - the failure to develop renewable energy sources or alternative technologies - we may soon have to add failure to protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
- Jeremy Tager is environment advisor to the Australian Democrats. Views expressed in this article are his own.
For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.