Largest Oil Platform Spill in Australia Threatening Marine Life

Written by on September 25, 2009 in Marine Life, Policy & Ocean Law
West Atlas Oil Rig Spill - Photocredit: Chris Twomey/Office of Senator Rachel Siewert

West Atlas Oil Rig Spill – Photocredit: Chris Twomey/Office of Senator Rachel Siewert

The West Atlas drill rig began spewing 400 barrels of oil a day into the Timor Sea on August 21st.  A month later, the Australian Marine Conservation Society says the statistics paint a picture of a major ecological disaster in the making for Australia’s marine environment.

The Timor Sea separates the island of Timor on the northwest from northern Australia at a width of 480 km (300 mi).  The sea covers an area of 610,000 sq km (235,000 sq mi), and reaches a depth of 3,200 m (10,500 ft) in the Timor Trough in the north.  It is globally important for its marine wildlife.  The spill has occurred right in the middle of a marine ‘superhighway’ for whales, turtles and seabirds and is close to unspoilt reefs and coral atolls.   The company’s own environmental plan lists as passing through the area:

  • 4 endangered species – Loggerhead turtle, Pacific Ridley turtle, Abbott’s Booby and the Blue Whale and
  • 8 vulnerable species listed – Green turtle, Hawksbill turtle, Flatback turtle, Lesser Noddy, Christmas Island Frigatebird, Humpback Whale, Leatherback turtle and the Whale shark.
Timor Sea

Timor Sea

Darren Kindleysides, Director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society said:

“This is the third largest oil spill in Australia’s history and the single largest from an oil platform in our waters. 1200 tonnes of black oil have already polluted the ocean with a slick that has covered 15,000 km2 of sea.  The leak is still unplugged and will take another month to cap.  This is a disaster that risks blowing out further in terms of its scale and impact on the ocean. Oil and wildlife just don’t mix.  The reported numbers of dead and oiled seabirds are just the tip of the iceberg.  For every animal recovered dead, tens to hundreds die unseen.  The unfolding crisis for wildlife needs urgent attention”

Timor Oil Spill, satellite image acquired August 30 - Credit: NASA

Timor Oil Spill, satellite image acquired August 30 - closeup - Credit: NASA
Timor Oil Spill, satellite image acquired August 30 – closeup – Credit: NASA

As one commenter on Senator Rachel Siewert’s website pointed out, at the reported spill rate of half a million liters per day, every three weeks the volume equals the total spill of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

70,000 litres of dispersant have already been sprayed on this slick.  As oil is dispersed into the water column, the effects on the ocean ecosystem and marine food chains can be significant and long-lived.  Fisheries affected by major tanker spills in Europe and the U.S. remained closed for years afterwards.

The seas off Western Australia are becoming a major frontier for oil and gas development.  As development continues to expand, there is increased risk of this sort of incident occurring again.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society is calling on the government to create more, large marine parks as havens from development for our precious marine wildlife.

“The West Atlas spill underlines the heavy burden oil and gas development can impose on our precious marine environment and the need for Government to shoulder the responsibility for protecting our seas from its impacts,” Kindleysides concluded.

A humpback tail - NOAA's Sanctuaries Collection - Photographer: Tom Kieckhefer

A humpback tail – NOAA’s Sanctuaries Collection – Photographer: Tom Kieckhefer

Copyright ©  2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Celia is Director of Business Operations for OceanLines LLC and is a frequent contributor to both OceanLines and Marine Science Today. She is a certified diver and her favorite topic is marine biology, especially stories about whales. .


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  1. Timor Oil Spill: Second Failure to Plug the Leak | Marine Science Today | October 16, 2009
  1. Fred Flintstone says:

    Our oceans are more important than oil profits and that’s proven in the fact that we are now considering the use of nuclear weapons to solve the problem.

    It’s no secret that political corruption and/or oil lobbyists’ are killing our planet. There are so many idiotic events that could have been avoided to prevent the destruction of our planet but they have all been avoided in order to yield higher oil profits. The irony exists on so many levels that I’m sure comedy writers are spinning their heads around it all right now. However, it’s undetermined whether or not the Simpson’s cartoon writer’s will be blessed with another 25 years of success as long as these political pirates are allowed to shove our armies into wars based on lies in an effort to increase oil profits and/or oil reserves. In turn, our tax dollars are actually killing us…by allowing our politicians to continue down this road of certain disaster and deception. It’s time to stop the oil-pirate, gun-slinging, manifest destiny mentality before it’s too late…

    Meanwhile, British Petroleum (BP) continues to yield $2 billion a month. I’m not sure if everyone is seeing all that has happened up to this point but it’s obviously a problem that continues to exist because oil lobbyists obviously and traditionally have never cared if their profits kill our world’s Eco-system or the USA’s world reputation as logical people.

    A second grade classroom experiment could have easily and clearly displayed all the dangers that we are now facing because of our involvement with deep sea oil drilling. It is not physically possible to stop a leak beneath the weight and pressure of ocean if the leak contains a highly pressurized liquid (oil) that is less dense than ocean water. Also, pressurized liquid can not be stopped until the pressure is reduced. However, the oil’s pressure cannot be reduced if the oil is located in the superheated core of the earth because heated gases continually expand creating a constant pressure. Therefore, whatever is inside the core of that hole that was dug 30 miles into the earth’s core will continue to spew-out at the same rate/psi until every last drop bursts from beneath the core of the earth and the ocean’s weight/pressure…

    BP’s ecological disaster will eventually cause the Earth’s oxygen levels to be deplete to the point where soon you’ll not only be looking for your next fish taco but you’ll also be struggling to find your next breath…At that point, or perhaps sooner… you’ll probably realize the irony that exists with the USA’s involvement in an oil war which was disguised as a quest to find “weapons of mass destruction” only to find out that we’ll actually be needing “weapons of mass destruction” to solve the problem of BP’s oil spill. In summary: GWB’s oil war has reduced the world’s opinion of the USA and it caused US banks to collapse. Worst of all is that GWB’s false reality of Sadaam’s Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction is now coming true, apparently, from Saddaam’s grave. Now, the USA is faced with the situation of having to aim weapons of mass destruction at itself in order to stop the oil from polluting the oceans.

    Unfortunately, the end to a devilish decade of mass corruption and deception is upon US. Looking at the bright side, however, I’m certain that Iran and N. Korea will be glad to donate their support to our efforts by offering their weapon’s of mass destruction in order to help us out of a problem that is actually bigger than nuclear war.

    Who do we have to thank for all this? We can thank GWB-I and GWB-II, Dick Cheney and Halliburton along with every other facet or aspect of capitalism and/or our countries non-resistance to political corruption that has has been center stage throughout this decade. It’s obvious that people learn by example and as of lately America continues to copy or repeat GWB’s example of greed within their own community or business: local school districts, churches, mortgage co., and insurance companies…everything stinks about our country since Bush created this huge debt and his oil buddies continue to commit us to their quest for oil profits while we are all unemployed and unable to even enjoy a simple day on the beach. It’s only a matter of time before we are all dead or flying around space looking for water and breathing recirculated oxygen throw a space helmet. I guess we should all start watching more Star Trek episodes to learn how we can survive in space. However, sticking to the previous plan of sending Bush to Mars may no longer be a safe solution for mankind. Ask your Century 21 agent about space colony housing projects, today, before they are all sold out.