Dr Margi Prideaux writes: “Following a period of detailed consideration the Government has today released the Report of the Montara Commission of Inquiry and a draft Government response” says this week’s press release from Martin Ferguson’s office, “…the impact on the marine environment was minimal. … We can’t just turn our backs on this industry — it is too important to Australia’s economic and energy security.”

The Montara (Timor Sea) oil spill was amongst the worst in Australia’s history, with what the industry euphemistically call “an uncontrolled release of oil, gas and condensate” between August 21 – November 3, 2009 within the Australian waters of the Timor Sea.

Despite early statements by the then Minister for Environment, Peter Garrett, that the spill would have negligible impact, they eventually admitted that their previous estimations of impact may have been undercooked, and that plans, technologies and processes companies must have place to respond to this type of spill are now subject to greater scrutiny. To their credit, the Government did establish the Montara Commission of Inquiry to investigate and identify the circumstances of the spill and to assess and report on the environmental impacts.  However, they didn’t move to this position without a push from the Greens.

They also bowed to pressure and developed an environmental monitoring programme [PDF], with early input from AIMS, CSIRO and relevant state and territory agencies, but only after significant lobbying from the scientific and the conservation community to establish a robust and independent monitoring programme that stretched over a few decades.

Perhaps to keep the ramifications at arm’s length, the Government put the fox in charge of the henhouse, giving the company at the heart of the spill — PTTEP AA — sole responsibility of funding the execution of the environmental monitoring programme work, with no commitment that the Government would seek other avenues should the company cease to exist. Only time will tell if the programme lasts more than a few years.

To compare, the US government’s response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill by BP is for the US National Science Foundation and other government agencies to invest substantial new sums in on-going research, along with US$500m to be provided by BP for independent researchers to study long-term effects of the oil spill.

Still, time is moving on. With the release of the Inquiry report this week, we also have reports of four of the seven scientific monitoring studies to consider, and notification that major areas will be missing from the research. Despite clear scientific advice that the impacts to marine mammals would stretch decades and not likely result the immediate death of animals during the spill, the ‘Marine Megafauna Assessment Survey’ has not been triggered because no bodies were found at the time of the spill. Therefore, the long-term environmental monitoring programme will further examine the impacts of the oil spill on birds, sea snakes and turtles, but not marine mammals.

The significance of this is important because any evidence of impacts to whales, dolphins and sea turtles will trigger further restrictions on this industry under Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. It is therefore not a surprise to scan the list of witnesses called to the Inquiry’s public hearings and see that Inquiry only heard evidence on the cause of the blowout and the roles and responsibilities of individuals and agencies surrounding the regulation of the industry. No independent environmental evidence was called. And, despite assurances by the Inquiry, there was no promised “consultation with those parties that provided information on such [environmental] matters”.

The PTTEP AA spokesman has said this week that that scientific evidence and studies had shown that the spill caused minimal damage and was “relatively concentrated …” although added they will “… subscribe to whatever findings come out of [the] report”.

So here is this crux of the problem we now face. Environmental considerations were effectively dropped from the official Inquiry investigation and replaced with government statements about impact and a PTTEP AA funded environmental monitoring programme [PDF], which is already stumbling.

Given the year that has followed, with the devastation of the Gulf Oil Spill reminding us that this threat is ever present, it is a little surprising that the Australian government still feels it should protect this industry from objective assessment of their cradle-to-grave impacts. But it obviously does.

Dr Margi Prideaux is an independent specialist in migratory species protection policy & law, with 20 years of marine policy and negotiation background, working with the Australian and international conservation movement. She runs the WildPolitics.net blog.