The reef, off the coast of Western Australia, is under threat by an exploratory drilling program granted to Woodside Petroleum by the West Australian Government. The program will start next year and will cost in excess of 300 million dollars. The company was awarded 3 “exploratory leases” by the government and is in the process of submitting proposals for a further 3 leases. Drilling will occur just 5.5km from the “buffer zone” of the reef. Leaving the reef vulnerable to any spills or blowouts that may occur as a result of the exploratory drilling program.
Woodside was awarded three exploration leases by the federal government in November, covering more than 10,000 square kilometres of ocean just west of the Rowley Shoals.
However, three more leases are up for tender that will totally enclose the reef system, leaving a buffer zone of just three nautical miles (about 5.5 kilometre) around each atoll.
Woodside would not say whether it was bidding for the new leases, which close on Thursday, but confirmed drilling operations for its existing offshore permits.
“Each well we drill is subject to rigorous environmental risk assessments and planning,” the company said in a statement.
“Well-integrity and safety is our highest priority.”
However, WWF WA director Paul Gamblin said even a modest spill or blowout so close to the reef system would be disastrous.
”It’s not so long since we had the Montara oil spill which is not too far away,” he said.
”Even something much smaller than the Montara spill right next to a coral reef would be devastating.”
Mr Gamblin said the atolls were among the healthiest in the world due to their remote location and rich biodiversity.
While the northern Mermaid Reef is protected by the Commonwealth, the southern Clerke and Imperieuse reefs are state marine parks.
“Lying on the very edge of Australia’s continental shelf, they are regarded as the most perfect examples of shelf-edge atolls in Australian waters,” WA’s Department of Environment and Conservation describes them on its website.
WA Environment Minister Bill Marmion told ABC radio that Canberra’s decision to open the area up to oil and gas was ”outside our control”.