The West Atlas Oil Rig

The West Atlas Oil Rig, site of the Montara Well HeadPhoto: Office of Senator Rachel Siewert


On the 19th October, 2009 I wrote Out of sight, Out of mind. It was to highlight the PTT Exploration and Production (PTTEP) Australasia Montara Well Head leaking 400 barrels of oil a day since August 21, 2009 with limited to no coverage by mainstream media as well as to draw attention to the lack of urgency surrounding the situation.

The leak continued unabated for 74 days until the Well Head was finally capped on 3rd November, 2009, making it officially the third largest oil spill in Australia.

Major Oil Spills in Australia
Ranked Date Name Location Amount
First 21/07/1991 Kirki Cervantes Bay, WA 17,280t
Second 14/07/1975 Princess Anne Marie 300 miles Offshore, WA 14,800t
Third 21/08/2009 PTTEP Australasia Montara well head, WA 4,285t
Fourth 28/11/1903 Petriana Port Phillip Bay, VIC 1,300t
Eleventh 11/03/2009 Pacific Adventurer Cape Moreton, QLD 270t
Fifteenth 03/04/2010 Shen Neng1 Great Keppel Island, QLD 102t
Twentieth 09/01/2012 MV Tycoon Christmas Island 4t

Throughout that period there remained little main stream coverage and it appears that The Kritic’s headline of “Out of sight, Out of mind” was well chosen.

After three years, throughout which PTTEP faced a maximum penalty of $1.7 million, the legal process has now drawn to a close with Magistrate John Lowndes issuing a paltry penalty of $510,000 to the Thai-based oil company PTTEP.

Magistrate John Lowndes, in his infinite wisdom, offered the company a discount of 25 per cent on its fines because it pleaded guilty to the four charges it was accused of. He then aggregated the first three charges, which had a maximum penalty for each breach of $500,000, related to breaching the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act and fined the company a total of $495,000 for those breaches.

A fourth charge, of failing to ensure its operations were conducted in a proper manner, earned PTTEP a $15,000 fine, well below the legislated maximum of $50,000.

In the end PTTEP were found responsible for the release of an estimated 4,285 tonnes of crude oil into open ocean water off Western Australia.

In handing down his ruling Dr Lowndes has listed the following comments:

  • “Clearly the offending, both individually and collectively, is of a very serious nature,”
  • “It is indeed fortunate that no one lost their lives or was injured.”
  • “A number of practical steps could have been taken to avoid the incident.”
  • “The defendant has met head-on its culpability,” Dr Lowndes said.
  • “As well as pleading guilty, PTTEP had showed contrition and remorse over the Montara incident.”
  • He said he “wanted the penalty to deter others.”

I’m appalled by the fine. The environment has been let down once again by the government of Australia. The fact that there may be “uncertainties about impacts” and that “Until we are better prepared to assess the effects of oil spills…” should have no bearing on the fine. The mere fact that something that is known to be a pollutant is released into the environment by the actions of humans should be cause enough for the maximum fines, in this case $1.7 million, to be imposed. A mere $510,000 fine does not go anywhere near his statement that he “wanted the penalty to deter others.”

On Thursday 30th August, 2012, PTTEP Australasia chief executive Ken Fitzpatrick said his company had admitted responsibility for the incident and deeply regretted it. “Mistakes were made that should never be repeated,” he said. Mr Fitzpatrick estimated the environmental impact had cost the company between $40 million and $50 million, although scientific studies were continuing.

The Report of the Montara Commission of Inquiry held two findings and one recommendation worth mentioning here:

  • Finding 83 – In the Inquiry’s view, the prolonged delay in undertaking Scientific Monitoring of the impact of the oil spill was unacceptable. The delay has restricted the scope for assessment of the environmental damage from the Blowout.
  • Finding 86 – Despite ongoing monitoring, it is unlikely that the full extent of environmental damage from the Montara oil spill will ever be established. The ability to detect environmental damage is generally greater during a blowout than after the flow has been stopped and will naturally decrease with time thereafter.
  • Recommendation 92 – The National Plan should specify that the cost of responding to an oil spill, or other damage to the offshore marine environment, will be totally met by the owner/operator.

We can only hope that these findings and recommendations, along with the unmentioned ones, are taken seriously and the strictest possible measures are put in place to deal with such incidences.

In March 2012 the Thai company behind AustraliaÂ’s 3rd worst oil spill said it will restart production at its Montara project, off the north western coast of Australia, in October. PTT Exploration and Production (PTTEP) had originally targeted late 2011 to restart the project, which in 2009 saw a fire brake out on an oil rig which caused than 20,000 barrels of crude oil to seep into the Timor Sea. According to the chief executive Anon Sirisaengtaksin the delay to the start-up is so the company can meet strict safety standards imposed by the Australian Federal Government.

The Federal Government granted PTTEP permission to restart the Mondara, which has a capacity to produce 35,000 barrels of oil a day, early last year, so long as stringent conditions were met. That PTTEP can even be allowed a licence to again operate in Australian waters astounds me.

Since that fateful date on August 21, 2009 there has been two other leaks in Australian waters, one near Christmas Island this year and the other one the Great Barrier Reef off Great Keppel Island, Queensland (The second leak in QLD in 13 months). With several new loading facilities being built along the Queensland coast and the expected increase in traffic it is now only a matter of time before we have a another major incident only this time it will have long lasting detrimental effects on one of our greatest treasures.


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