Investigation finds failure to properly respond to spill near drilling platform posed ‘significant threat to the environment’
May 10, 2017 — Failure to properly respond to an oil spill near an ExxonMobil rig in the Bass Strait increased the risk of contamination and posed a “significant threat to the environment”, an investigation has found.
The spill was reported to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (Nopsema) on 1 February after an oily sheen was spotted in the water near the West Tuna oil platform, about 45km off the coast of Lakes Entrance in Gippsland.
The platform is operated by Esso Australia Resources Pty Ltd, an affiliate of ExxonMobil, as part of the Kipper Tuna Turrum gas project.
A Nopsema investigator who examined Esso’s response to the spill said it had failed to identify the source of the leaks because its staff failed to follow procedures in collecting, testing and labelling oil samples, in part because they did not have the required equipment, causing a “significant threat to the environment”.
The findings were contained in an environmental improvement notice issued by the regulator in April but not made public until Tuesday.
It found that Esso’s failure to follow its own procedures following detection of the oil sheen lead to its failure to obtain a representative sample of oil, which directly impacted its ability to identify the source of the spill.
That in turn created unnecessary delays in responding to the spill and “may result in additional environmental impact and risk that could otherwise be avoided”, the notice said.
Esso has been ordered to review its oil spill response training within 60 days or risk “additional enforcement action”.
A spokesman from Esso confirmed they had not been able to identify the source of the oil but disagreed with the assumption that it had come from their oil rig, saying: “Esso is of the view there is no credible scenario which confirms our operations to be the source of the sheen.”
The spokesman told Guardian Australia that Esso already had approved environmental plans and oil sampling programs in place.
“In this particular circumstance, there was a vessel available which could take a sample of the observed sheen,” he said. “However, this vessel did not have sampling equipment on board which met our environmental plan protocols.
“Esso is taking steps to ensure approved sampling equipment is readily available to respond in similar circumstances.”
Nathaniel Pelle, a senior campaigner for Greenpeace Australia-Pacific, said it was unlikely Esso would face any real penalties for either the oil spill or its response to the spill, despite the risk posed to listed marine and birdlife in the Gippsland area.
“The only enforcement action is that Nopsema has given Esso an improvement notice,” he said. “Meanwhile, if you are a fishermen caught without a lifejacket in the Bass Strait you are fined $100. You are fined more for breaching basic fishing regulations than you are for spilling oil.”
Pelle said it was concerning the regulator would not take a more punitive approach to companies that failed to follow their own procedures to investigate an oil spill, particularly given plans by Chevron to conduct oil drilling from floating deep-water platforms in the Great Australian Bight.
Chevron said in February that taxpayers would be expected to subsidise the cost of cleaning up any oil spills in the region, but that “we don’t intend to have an oil spill”.
“The oil industry has referred to their excellent safety record in the Bass Strait as a reason that they can be trusted to drill in the much more extreme deep-water conditions in the Great Australian Bight,” Pelle said. “But we find there has been a number of safety incidents in the Bass Strait in recent years.”
The incident at the West Tuna oil platform in February followed two high-profile incidents at Exxon-operated oil platforms in the past four years: a fire in the battery room of the same platform in September 2015, and an oil spill near the Cobia platform, about 70km off the Gippsland coast, in September 2013. Esso had to temporarily shut down the Cobia to Halibut pipeline following that incident, when an estimated 774 litres of oil spilled into the Bass Strait.
“It’s unbelievable that staff on an oil rig that have experienced major accidents in recent years wouldn’t be trained in their basic protocols,” Pelle said.
The resources minister, Matt Canavan, visited the West Tuna platform in the Bass Strait last week, as part of the Turnbull government’s push to expand the domestic gas industry.
Asked if he was concerned about the recent incident at West Tuna, Canavan said he was confident in Nopsema’s “robust and transparent regulatory system”.