Plan to dump rig near Ningaloo may breach law

Australia could be in breach of international law if it allows oil and gas giant Woodside to dump a 2,529-tonne steel and plastic mooring next to the Ningaloo World Heritage Area, according to legal advice obtained by the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Woodside intends to sink the riser turret mooring (RTM) that secured the decommissioned Nganhurra floating oil rig as early as December this year.

The mooring – a massive riser turret that secured it to the seabed – contains many tonnes of plastic and manganese, a toxic, soluble heavy metal that will eventually be discharged into the sensitive marine environment around Ningaloo Reef.

Woodside says it will remove as much of the 65 cubic metres of polyurethane foam that is part of the structure as is ‘practicable’, and put grout over the remainder, but conservationists worry this will also end up in the ocean.

Professor Tina Soliman Hunter, Professor of Energy and Resources Law at Macquarie Law School, advises that ‘granting permission to scuttle the RTM near Ningaloo to create an artificial reef for recreation purposes, when the removal of the structure is possible, is likely to amount to a breach of Australia’s international law obligations.’

Woodside says it is unable to comply with its original environment plan (towing the RTM to land for disposal) due to the poor condition of the mooring.

Conservation groups are calling for Woodside to mobilise whichever vessels are necessary to transport the poorly maintained RTM to land. Offshore regulator NOPSEMA is investigating whether Woodside broke the law by letting its equipment fall into disrepair.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s nature campaigner Nathaniel Pelle said:

“We are very concerned about Woodside’s plan to dump this structure, full of plastics and heavy metals, just a few kilometres from the Ningaloo World Heritage Area famed for its abundance of marine turtles, whale sharks, and unique coral reef system.

“UNESCO already lists pollutants associated with the offshore oil and gas industry as a threat to Ningaloo.

“Environment Minister Sussan Ley should reject Woodside’s application to dump its toxic waste as it could damage Ningaloo and would set a dangerous precedent given the hundreds of oil and gas wells due to be abandoned by oil and gas companies in the next few years.”

Protect Ningaloo director Paul Gamblin said:

“This is yet another example of heavy industry encroaching on the globally-important and fragile Ningaloo-Exmouth Gulf area.

“Australia is overdue for a reset around how heavy industry treats ecologically rare and important places along Australia’s coastline.

“Companies need to demonstrate respect for Australia’s last intact natural areas by giving them a wide berth.

“Dumping poorly maintained, polluting infrastructure on the doorstep of places like Ningaloo Reef is something you might’ve expected in the 1980s, but not this century.

“It’s obvious governments need to do much more to make industry accountable and support the work and powers of regulatory agencies.”

Conservation Council WA spokesperson Maggie Wood said:

“This is not the first time Woodside has failed to decommission properly.

“It is totally unacceptable for big oil and gas companies like Woodside to let their offshore infrastructure get into such a state of disrepair that the only solution is to dump it on the ocean floor.

“The out of sight-out of mind nature of offshore LNG means there is very little public scrutiny placed on the decommissioning process and companies like Woodside have benefited from this lack of public awareness.

“It is clear Woodside cannot be trusted to clean up after itself.

“More scrutiny should be placed on any future project proposed by this company to make sure it does not leave the Australian public to pick up the bill.”

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