The proposal from Shell to explore for gas within 50-60 kilometres of Ningaloo Reef Marine Park has led to calls from major environment groups and the Greens for the project to be banned. However, oil and gas exploration is already permitted in other Commonwealth Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and will likely be included in a massive increase in MPAs championed by the University of Queensland and the Pew Environment Group.

For most Australians, the idea of marine national parks was born with declaration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park along a vast area of the Queensland coast to protect it from oil exploration and drilling in the early 1980s.  This deal was negotiated between the Hawke government and the legendary Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the-then Premier of Queensland. The deal banned oil and gas exploration outright but initially banned recreational and commercial fishing in very small reference areas and had widespread support.

With considerable funding generating extensive tourism facilities, it became Australia’s premier tourist attraction. Over time the idea of what marine parks are designed to protect has changed.  Recent MPAs in Commonwealth and state waters, existing and proposed, have come the full circle, targeting fishing but exempting seismic testing — despite its potential impact to marine life and with little or no funding for tourism.

In November last year, a report was issued calling for MPAs to be established in Commonwealth waters across vast areas from Kangaroo Island in South Australia across the south-west and up to Geralton in Western Australia.  This report was prepared by researchers from the University of Queensland for the Pew Environment Group. The Pew Environment Group has a unique agenda and close links to the Oil Industry.

Many Commonwealth MPAs already inlcude oil exploration. Around the time of consultation for the establishment of the south-east MPAs in 2001-02 there was a submission to an inquiry in to MPAs from the Australian Association of Maritime Affairs, referencing other research from Pew.  It “adapted” the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) protection categories for land-based national parks for Marine Protected Areas.

For the south-east MPAs this submission was more or less adopted. The then first proposed Commonwealth MPA zones can allow oil and gas exploration in zones VI, but more recently there were amendments for all zones to allow “transit mining”.

Transit mining is: “Mining — as defined in s 355 of the act — activities include oil and gas exploration and extraction, as well as geosequestration of carbon. Seismic survey and transit is allowed under general approval from the Director of National Parks. Conditions apply to the approval. Other mining activities are permitted in Multiple Use and Special Purpose Zones on a case by case assessment. Contact the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts for more information.”

In 2009 Andrew Macintosh and Tim Bonyhady Australian Centre for Environmental Law Australian National University published a report Commonwealth Marine Protected Areas Displaced Activities Analysis. This report identifies that mining rights have remained strong while fishing rights are weak in Commonwealth waters.

In affect, this means that any new Commonwealth MPAs will be able to exclude fishing and pay little or no compensation. However, if mining is excluded, the compensation will be considerable.  Declaring vast additional areas of the sea MPAs will likely only be possible if oil and gas exploration is maintained.

It seems that the idea of what MPAs are meant to protect the marine environment from has reversed since the declaration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  This is even more curious given the recent oil spills from the Montara well of north-west Australia in 2009 and in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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