Pandemic leaves Australia vulnerable to major oil spills, govt concedes Reef at risk

The Federal Government has conceded that Australia could struggle to respond to a major oil spill, such as the current disaster off the Sri Lankan coast, due in part to industry changes brought on by pandemic restrictions.

Jun 07, 2021, updated Jun 07, 2021
The fire-stricken and partially submerged MV X-Press Pearl off Colombo port, Sri Lanka. (Sri Lanka Air Force via AP)

The fire-stricken and partially submerged MV X-Press Pearl off Colombo port, Sri Lanka. (Sri Lanka Air Force via AP)

The Department of Industry, Science and Resources and the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) are reviewing Australia’s oil spill preparedness and response (OSPR) arrangements.

NOPSEMA recently discovered about a third of offshore oil facilities had deferred maintenance due to pandemic-related changes and low oil prices, which it declared a “key compliance issue” with potential global implications.

Concerned by the ever-present risk to natural assets such as the Great Barrier Reef, the government has broached Australia’s level of preparedness with the private sector, and asked whether there is anything to be learned from how the United States, Norway, United Kingdom and even Russia respond to oil spills.

“There are inherent limitations within Australia’s existing offshore petroleum OSPR framework and this project will evaluate alternatives which could deliver a significant change in performance,” the government conceded.

“Recent impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted vulnerabilities in Australia’s oil spill response capabilities and the reliability of international support.”

In Sri Lanka last week, a fire on board the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl, carrying 1486 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid along with other chemicals and cosmetics, has left a vast area of ocean contaminated and plastic pellets washing up on the shoreline. Authorities still fear a major oil spill.

In Australia, the last shipping incident to lead to a significant oil spill involved the MV Tycoon off Christmas Island in 2012, when an estimated 102 tonnes of oil leaked into the ocean. That was dwarfed by the Montara Wellhead oil platform disaster, however, which saw approximately 4,750 tonnes of oil released in 2009.

Five of the last 10 oil spills recorded by the government occurred off Queensland, including the Shen Neng 1 incident near Great Keppel Island in 2010.

The government has previously encouraged industry to be better prepared for potential oil spills, and think of the worst-case scenarios when developing response and contingency plans. Oil companies fund the Australian Marine Oil Spill Centre to lead the industry response, and the government last year issued a new policy for reporting and dealing with oil spills, having previously reminded companies of their obligation to clean up after themselves.

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