Australia’s secret offshore oil leak

From ToxicLeaks

Background on Woodside Petroleum[edit | edit source]

Woodside Petroleum is an Australian oil and gas company first incorporated in 1952. It has emerged as Australia’s leading LNG producer accounting for 8 percent of the global supply. The company was the first to be awarded an offshore exploration license in Australia, drilling at what was then an impressive 60 meter depth, and today operates a USD$19 billion North West Shelf Project while supplying significant amounts for residential use.

In addition to extensive assets off the Australian coast and its downstream holdings, the Woodside footprint extends to Gabon, Morocco and Senegal in Africa, offshore exploration in Ireland and new projects in Myanmar worth $150 million on 2017. Yet that expansion has come at a cost to the environment, with multiple leaks and spills adding up over the years. In the most recent case, an offshore leak in the North West Shelf in 2016 spilled for some two months. The leak went unreported – not by the company, but by Australian authorities.

Offshore oil leak of 2016 exposed[edit | edit source]

Australia’s National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) is the regulatory agency with oversight for industry incidents like the one that occurred in April 2016. Yet it wasn’t until an annual offshore performance report released in May 2017 that media professionals, the public and environmental advocates discovered the public reference to a 10,500 liter spill that leaked at a rate of about 175 liters per day. The leak was discovered on a routine inspection by a remotely controlled undersea vehicle, which identified the source as a vent located on a safety valve on a well head in the North West Shelf. That incident accounted for almost all petrocarbon leaks reported in that year, though the report did not identify the precise location or the oil operator responsible for it.

It wasn’t until a reporter for The Guardian pressed authorities a full year later that details of the spill were obtained. They included the fact that the spill went on for two months at a platform that was undergoing maintenance and was detected only when that platform was brought back online. NOPSEMA investigators said the operator was required to check all seals before the platform was taken offline, but a failure had resulted in the toxic spill.

Yet NOPSEMA refused to provide additional information, citing “an implied duty of confidence” on the part of the oversight body. That secrecy drew objections from activists including Greenpeace Australia, who demanded that oil companies be accountable to the public and condemned the fact that there were no fines or punishments for the oil leak.

On May 19, 2017, The Guardian and other media reported that a Woodside Petroleum statement admitted the company was behind the spill but denied any lasting impact on the environment. No mention of it was made in Australian stock exchange announcements.

The company admission came two days after Woodside received an environmental award.

History of Woodside oil leaks[edit | edit source]

The North West Shelf leak was by no means the first for Woodside. Among other incidents was a leak in 2005, when the company was responsible for about 300 barrels that spilled at the Laminaria Field in the Timor Sea. In 2011, the Australian government demanded that Woodside explain why it was moving forward while sidestepping federal approval for drilling off the coast of Kimberley in a joint venture with PTTEP Australasia. The latter firm was responsible for the 2009 Montara oil spill disaster, the largest in Australian history and a still-litigated incident that affected 15,000 Indonesian fishermen pleading a $200 million class action suit. It also strained international relations with Indonesia, which in December 2016 said it was seeking help for ongoing cleanup and planned a lawsuit against the Thai-owned PTTEP. Woodside also was cited in 2013 for a critical safety equipment failure.

Australian government response[edit | edit source]

While secrecy over the 2016 Woodside incident and the company’s history are troubling, the Australian government’s complicity is placing its offshore waters and marine habitats at risk. Greenpeace called on Australians to share their concern over national regulators who keep oil spill data secret, and shield major companies rather than protecting people and the planet. Offshore oil safety experts also cried foul and said transparency serves as a deterrent for careless and profit-driven practices, and they need to be exposed.

Activists noted that the same government report that buried information about Woodside’s responsibility for the leak showed that hydrocarbon leaks overall had risen by 28 percent since the previous year. At the same time, inspections by regulators fell by 27 percent.

Questions also have been raised about the December 2016 appointment of an oil executive to NOPSEMA as the new head of safety and integrity. Derrick O’Keeffe will now be in a position to assess new environmental impact, drilling safety and well management plans for Murphy Oil, the same company whose Australian arm he headed up for the past four years.

He also has worked for Woodside in the past, along with Marathon Oil and other oil majors.

It’s no wonder, then, that Australian environmental activists say that NOPSEMA’s new safety and integrity leadership is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse – an apt metaphor for the agency’s conduct over the most recent Woodside spill as well.