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Australian Greens respond to the Montara Commission of Inquiry

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 24 Nov 2010

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia) (5.34 pm)—by leave—I could not let this opportunity to take note of the ministerial statement on the Montara Commission of Inquiry pass because I have been waiting for 18 months for this report on the results of the inquiry. The Montara spill occurred on 21 August and it is now the end of November. I am very pleased that this report has finally been tabled along with the government’s response. The report has been available only for the last couple of hours, so I have not been able to read every page, but I have had a look at a significant part of it. It looks to be a very good and very thorough report. It confirms a lot of the issues that we thought about at the time.

I draw the attention of the Senate to a number of issues in this report. One is that the report clearly identifies the company, PTTPEP Australasia (Ashmore Cartier) Pty Ltd, as responsible for the spill in that the company were found to be not adhering to their own compliance monitoring programs and well operation plans in addition to not complying with the regulatory process. In their response, the government highlighted that they were not satisfied with just asking the company to show cause why they should not only have their leases cancelled for the Montara field but also have their leases cancelled for their other operations. The important point is that this company, over the last 18 months, has been allowed to acquire other leases in Australian waters and continue their operations, with the government knowing full well, from the company’s own submissions to the inquiry and the transcript of evidence from the inquiry, that there were issues. There were obviously issues with this company, yet they were allowed to continue their operations and acquire leases. The government has acknowledged that there will be changes to the legislation—and I will get onto that in a minute—but we will be looking at making a change to the legislation to enable a government to choose not to grant leases to companies where there are significant question marks over their ability to manage oilfields and when they may have caused a significant accident like this. We will be pursuing that.

We do support the government’s response. Minister Ferguson had said that they will be pursuing the establishment of a single regulator. We think that is a good approach but the success of such an approach will hang on a number of things. We think the approach of separating the regulator from those who are granting oil and gas leases is a good principle to start with, but it will hang on whether the body is adequately resourced to (a) enable them to get the best expertise possible, because they need the expertise to look at the companies’ operations; and (b) to adequately audit compliance, because that was a major failing in this process. Not only did the company fail but the NT government and the department failed to adequately enforce regulations. It was almost a tick and flick exercise. They did not enforce oil and gas regulations. They did not enforce compliance, and the government talks a great deal about that, so we will be pursuing those changes. We will be looking at the 2011-12 budget to make sure that the organisation is adequately resourced in the budget, because that is going to be crucial to its operations.

One of the other key areas that the committee of inquiry looked into is the area of environmental impacts. I have to say here that everything that environment groups and the Greens were saying at the time about the problems with the environment and the lack of coordination are basically talked about in this report. There was a failure for proper coordination across government agencies when it came to looking at the environmental issues, and there was a failure to share information. There was no one person responsible. The report talks about the lack of monitoring. The point here is that we will actually never ever really know the full environmental impact of the spill, because insufficient baseline monitoring was done by the company in the first place, which the NT government allowed; they did not require better environmental baseline assessment of the environment. Secondly, no monitoring was done from the start of the spill. I also point out that no monitoring was done on the subsurface water—in other words, on the impact of the dispersants and the dispersed oil on the marine environment. This week the company put out a study saying, ‘We’ve used computer modelling,’ to say it did not have an impact. They did not have monitoring done so we do not know. We do not know how many marine species were affected. We do not know what impact the oil spill and the dispersants had on coral spawning, which was occurring at the time, and commercial fish species—and a number were commercial species. That needs never to happen again.

The commission’s report also touches, although not extensively, on the oil that went into Indonesian waters, and the minister touched on it in the ministerial statement. The report said that, yes, oil did go into the Indonesian waters. I must point out that we know that too, because the commission of inquiry confirmed that the oil sample I sent in, which I received from Indonesian fishers, indicated that it was Montara oil. In the ministerial statement the minister said that it is now up to the Indonesian government and the company to deal with it. I beg to differ. It was Australia that regulated this oilwell. We agreed that our failure to properly make sure the company did their job properly and to audit compliance contributed to this spill, which ended up impacting on Indonesian fishers. I believe Australia has a moral responsibility to show leadership here and to ensure that these fishers are compensated. I do not know what the full impact has been. I do not know whether anybody has ascertained that yet, and that is a problem. These are subsistence fishers who rely on this area for their livelihood and to feed their families. They are the ones who immediately bore the brunt of this spill, because they had to stop fishing. I think, and the Greens think, that the Australian government should be facilitating an outcome for these Indonesian fishers. It was our regulatory process that contributed to its failure, so we need to ensure that those fishers are adequately compensated if there is a problem.

There are clearly some significant issues that will need to be followed up from this report. There are over 100 findings and 100 recommendations. The commission of inquiry have done a good job in picking up these issues. We now need the government to pick up on all the recommendations. As I said, we support the announcements the government has made in terms of the regulatory response and in setting up an independent single regulator. We need to ensure its independence. We need to ensure we fix up the environmental legislation side of things and change our practices. This was not mentioned extensively in the ministerial statement. Some of the issues have been mentioned but not as comprehensively as I would have liked. We will be pursuing this with government. We will be pursuing changes to the environmental protection act to ensure that this sort of problem does not happen again.

On the other key point, I clearly point out the need to have the polluter pay. In other words the company is responsible for all the clean-up, all the remediation and all the monitoring. That should not be, as is the situation at the moment, a reliance on the goodwill of the company to pay it. Under the legislation they do not have to pay it. The legislation needs to be changed to ensure that the concept of polluter pays is enshrined in legislation so government does not have to rely on the goodwill of the company that caused the problem in the first place. The company may see it as a PR exercise but we do not want to rely on that. We need to make sure that the company pays for the full cost of the clean-up, for the full cost of remediation and for ongoing monitoring. We will be pursuing these recommendations with government. I know government knows that. I am very pleased that the government has finally tabled this response, nearly 18 months after this disaster started. As I said, we will never know the full impact that this spill has had on our marine environment. I hope we do not see a similar spill in the future.

The last thing I would like to point out is that, no matter how good regulation is, you cannot guarantee that you will never have a spill. That is why we need to complement good oil and gas regulation with marine protected areas. There are some areas that are just so special you cannot risk them, so we need to make sure that everybody is also aware that we need to have a comprehensive set of marine protected areas around Australia to ensure that our really special marine environments, our really special marine biodiversity, are protected so they are never at risk of a spill, because we can never guarantee 100 per cent that a spill will not happen, no matter how good our regulations.

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