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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 4839


Senator BARTLETT (1:26 PM) —Mr Acting Deputy President, given that I am unlikely to have time to give my speech, because of my allocated order on the speakers list, I seek leave to incorporate my speech in Hansard. I have given that to the whips.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows

Over the last year the Australian Democrats have been actively researching and investigating the activities of government departments and oil industry interests in the Coral Sea, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP).

In March this year, the Australian ran a major story, utilising many documents and materials secured by the Australian Democrats, outlining some of the history of oil exploration in the GBRMP and the Coral Sea—a secret history, a history filled with attempts to disguise the nature of the work occurring in and next to one of our most valuable natural areas.

We have been assured by Ministers and department officials that release of areas in the Coral Sea under the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act is not being considered; that the oil industry is not expressing interest; that claims of massive reserves in the area are “not worth the paper they're written on”1—and many of these claims have been made before Senate committees.

I am rising today to say that the evidence gathered by the Australian Democrats, and documents procured by them—points to the contrary. They point to the oil industry and Geosciences Australia (GA) and perhaps government more broadly engaging in systematic deception of the Australian people while they move inexorably towards an offshore oil industry that will directly threaten the GBRMP.

The Australian story in March omitted one major detail. Geosciences Australia has been buying satellite data in the Townsville Trough, adjacent to the GBRMP, and they are using it to detect petroleum reserves and it appears they are doing it in conjunction with Shell and Woodside petroleum companies.

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is used to detect oil seeps. The seeps are indicators of petroleum reserves. According to Infoterra, an Australian company that has approached GA offering to evaluate satellite data for seeps in the Townsville Trough region, “seep detection is an ideal technique for evaluating large frontier basins... Almost all known oil provinces in the world seep”.2

Unfortunately for the world's coral reefs, seeps in the marine environment are also associated with the development of reef systems and are areas of unique habitats and assemblages.

At Senate Estimate hearings in June 2002, GA claimed that the acquisition of the satellite data was for environmental outcomes. They claim that it was interest from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that prompted the acquisition of the data and the initiation of a pilot project in the areas adjacent to the GBRMP.

The claim is spurious on a number of grounds.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has repudiated the statements made by GA in a letter to me from August this year.

GA has tabled no documentation of any sort describing the project. There is no correspondence from GBRMPA indicating interest in the project.

GA has now acknowledged in writing that, “there are no such communications or records of communications”3 with GBRMPA. They also admit that the program is not contained in their Workplan, a yearly statement of projects, outcomes and outputs of the organisation.

Instead there is evidence that the acquisitions relate to a proposal from Shell and Woodside oil companies submitted to GA in 2000.

In May 2000 GA received a proposal from Seismic Australia, a private company, asking for GA support in the reprocessing of seismic data in the Townsville Trough.4

Also in May, Woodside and Shell submitted a proposal inviting GA to participate in the Eastern Australia Frontier Deepwater Basins Industry/AGSO Consortium. The proposal is explicitly intended to lead to gazettal of areas for release under the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act 1967— the process by which areas are opened up to commercial oil exploration and exploitation. Areas include the Townsville Trough, Queensland Trough and Plateau and the Capricorn Basin.

As part of the project the Consortium offers to fund an AGSO study “principally based on a Seismic Australia seismic reprocessed dataset, potential field and satellite seepage data” (emphasis added)

The role of GA includes “Collation and Correlation of existing well data (including ODP5data)...Oils/shows analysis...SAR slick screening...Simple summary of prospective hydrocarbon areas”

The proposal is contingent on the participation of at least 3 oil companies in addition to Shell/Woodside. The cost of joining is $600,000—with $100,000 from each membership going to GA for their work.

The consortium will give the reprocessed seismic data to GA at no cost. There are some constraints on GA's use of the data, but it is recognised that GA “will have to display and show selected data to promote industry interest in the area”6

Testimony by GA during estimates hearings in June this year did not reveal any of this information. I asked:

Senator Bartlett: “Do those international oil representatives approach GA directly or, through the Minister, do those sorts of indications of interest get passed on to you?”

Dr Powell: “I am not aware of any official letters to the Minister. We have had informal discussions with representatives of companies from time to time about their interest up there”

Senator Bartlett: “When you talk about informal communications, what form does that take?”

Dr Powell: “We meet regularly with the industry for them to review their exploration programs with us and for us to review geological issues with them. It is not uncommon for the ensuing question to be asked: has there been any change in policy relating to north-east Queensland?”7

The answer is misleading at best. The question was seeking information on approaches by the oil industry to GA. A major proposal had been received by GA from two international oil companies, offering GA significant amounts of money, but this response fails to mention the proposal at all.

This is also less than a month after GA decides to have the satellite data interpreted at a cost of $48,000 and that interpretation of this data was part of the Shell/Woodside proposal.

The relationship between the two proposals—that of Seismic Australia and Shell/Woodside is still not clear. That of Shell/Woodside includes work by Seismic Australia in 3 areas adjacent to the GBRMP. Seismic Australia's proposal appears to be a separate proposal for reprocessing work in only 1 area—the Townsville Trough. Perhaps GA rejected the Seismic Australia proposal because the same information was to be provided, free of charge, through the Shell/Woodside proposal.

GA rejects the Seismic Australia proposal in writing in July 2000, although the nature of the rejection does not foreclose on the project proposal per se. “AGSO does not wish to participate in any reprocessing or marketing of these data under the current Joint Venture Agreement” (emphasis added).8

GA provides no documents indicating their response to the Shell/Woodside proposal. In tabling documents under a return to order, they indicated to the Australian Democrats that they have given a “verbal no”9to the proposal.

The claim is difficult to believe.

Firstly, a proposal offering up to $800,000 to GA for work relating to the Coral Sea is not likely to be rejected so casually and informally. It is not likely to be rejected without any documentation, correspondence, record of phone calls, memos— but GA has not tabled anything in response to an offer for a major joint venture.

Secondly, and more importantly, it now turns out that GA purchased the SAR satellite data in the same year as the Shell/Woodside proposal, and the proposal explicitly calls for GA to analyse SAR satellite data.

GA purchased the SAR data in dated June 2000 for $51,36210 approximately a month after the proposal from Shell/Woodside arrived at GA and a month before they rejected the proposal from Seismic Australia. It simply beggars belief that GA did nothing, said nothing, wrote nothing, corresponded with no one—in other words simply ignored a proposal from two large oil companies with whom they have regular dealings.

Significantly, the GA Workplan for 2000-200111 contains no mention of this project, no program of work at all in the Coral Sea and no allocation of funds for the acquisition of SAR data or explanation of their purpose in fulfilling GA objectives.

According to a source within GA, the only explanation for this omission is that the information was not intended to become public.

The 2001-2002 GA Workplan, however, contains evidence that the Shell/Woodside proposal was actually accepted by GA and included in the Workplan after the fact. Section 2.11 calls for a “geological overview of the east coast basins in order that decisions can be made regarding petroleum exploration opportunities and acreage release”12. The outputs for that project include a report on the east coast basins and a desktop study “integrating data and interpretive products for basins in the eastern region into corporate databases”. This bears an uncanny resemblance to the Shell/Woodside proposal.

It is also directly contradicted by testimony given to the Senate during Estimates hearings in June this year. “We are not doing any research into the petroleum potential of that area (Townsville Trough) until we have an indication that there may be a release area.”

On April 11, 2002, GA decided to have the data interpreted. It isn't clear from released documents why they purchased the data in 2000 but waited almost 2 years to have the 24 Queensland `scenes' interpreted. Perhaps it is only now that the Consortium has the 4 oil industry members required under Shell/Woodside proposal for the project to proceed.

They approach Resource Industry Associates seeking a quote for the work.

The quote, dated four days later, gives the project cost as $48,000. The cost will include a rating of the likelihood of hydrocarbons in each `scene'. No mention is made of any environmental outcome or purpose in the study.

By the 19th of April, GA has agreed to the project and received their first invoice for partial payment. As of early September 2002, the interpretation isn't complete.13

Simply on the basis of cost alone (a total of approximately $100,000), it is difficult to believe that this project was never discussed, formally authorised or included in the Workplan for 2000-2001 by GA. The almost total absence of documentation indicates either the documents relating to the project weren't provided as requested by the Senate or the project has no paper trail at all in an attempt to avoid exposure and accountability. It is difficult to arrive at any other conclusion.

This secret project to have vast areas of the Coral Sea adjacent to the GBRMP gazetted for oil exploration purposes isn't new, but it is time for the entire secretive story to be brought out into the open. The stakes are too high to leave this issue in the hands of government.

The petroleum prospects in the Townsville Trough and other basins adjacent to the GBRMP are believed to be approximately 5 billion barrels. This would make the region far and away Australia's richest offshore oil fields.

It would also seriously threaten the ecological and economic viability of the GBRMP.

We have heard the attempts to deflect the issue— arguing that there are no plans to drill inside the GBRMP. Well, there are few who believe that the GBRMP is under direct and immediate threat of oil drilling- the law clearly prohibits it—although there is evidence of petroleum prospectivity within the GBRMP.

The greater and more immediate threat is the known reserves in the Coral Sea directly adjacent to the Marine Park.

It's a long way out, it would never be done without stringent requirements in place, there are no current plans...these are the kinds of statements the government is making. It's no longer good enough, no longer convincing to anyone who looks at the evidence. The Townsville Trough is within 50km of the eastern boundary of the GBRMP. Any offshore oil industry in the Coral Sea would use the shipping lanes of the GBRMP as its highway.

The significance and danger of an offshore oil industry adjacent to the GBRMP has been highlighted in the last two years by shipping accidents in the inner channel of the GBRMP. The inner channel, which runs between the outer reef area and the coastline, is currently a major shipping route both for ships stopping at ports adjacent to the GBRMP and for passage to southern and northern ports. An oil industry in the Coral Sea would have to use the GBRMP shipping routes for tankers and rigs.

The Democrats estimate that an oil industry in the Coral Sea would approximately double the number of oil tankers using the GBRMP.

In the last 7 years there have been 10 major groundings inside the GBRMP, almost all a result of pilot error. While there have been no spills associated with the grounding, in one case, explosives had to be used to destroy coral preventing the ship from refloating.

In 2000, The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) reviewed shipping in the GBRMP in response to a grounding of a cargo ship on a reef near Cairns. The report, based on a submission from the Department of Industry, Science and Resources expressed concerns about limiting the use of the inner passage because “banning of petroleum industry ships could affect exploration and development of resources in the region outside the GBRMP and could negatively affect the economic viability of potential petroleum production in the Coral Sea”.14

It is also of obvious concern to the Australian Democrats and the Australian environmental community that the Australian Government, already a greenhouse renegade, would consider promoting such a major greenhouse industry adjacent to a marine park already suffering considerable mortality from greenhouse related rises in sea surface temperature.

These concerns are only heightened by the approval by the Federal Government almost five years ago of a greenhouse intensive oil shale industry on the mainland adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef.

No one should underestimate our determination to see GA come clean about their activities and their intentions. We do not believe that GA has found or released all of the materials that have been requested of them. We do not believe that either GA or the Government have been forthcoming about their intentions or their activities in the Coral Sea. We want to know, and the Australian people want to know, the full story of this secret history. And we want this Government to publicly declare their support for the Australian Democrats Boundary Extension Bill, which will ensure that the Coral Sea—its reefs and islands—and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are protected from an offshore oil industry.

1 Dr Trevor Powell, Senate Estimate, June 3, 2002, p 89

2 http://www.infoterra-global.com/explore/seep1.htm

3 Response to Order for Production of Documents, 19 August 2002, p2

4 Tabled document, Return to Order, August 2000

5 The Ocean Drilling Program has conducted two survey in the Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park—1990 and 2001

6 Tabled document, Return to Order, August 2000

7 Senate Estimate, 3 June 2002, p 132

8 Tabled document, Return to Order, August 2002

9 Response to Order for Production of Documents, 19 August 2002, p1

10 Response to Question on Notice, no 0397, to the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resouces, question 9, p3.

11 AGSO-Geoscience Australia Workplan 2001-2002

12 AGSO-Geoscience Australia Workplan, 2002-2002, p12

13 Tabled documents, Return to Order, August 2002

14 Great Barrier Reef Ship Safety and Pollution Prevention Review, AMSA, 2001, section 6.19