Monday 11 July 2011

Drilling for oil on the Ningaloo Reef

On the 24th of June 2011 the Ningaloo Reef, off the western coast of Australia, was granted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO, 30 years after the same status was granted to the more famous Great Barrier Reef off the eastern Australian coast. This recognizes that the reef is of universally significant interest to the international community, and binds Australia to conserve the site for the benefit of all mankind. UNESCO has a budget of US$4 million a year to help countries protect sites, though with a large number of sites in developing countries, it is hard to see any circumstance under which Australia would qualify for any financial assistance. The site was, of course, nominated by the Australian government; UNESCO does not impose heritage status upon countries. However on the 8th of July 2011 the Australian government granted permission for oil giant Shell to drill for natural gas on the reef.

The Ningaloo Reef runs for 260 km along the northwest coast of Australia. It is noted for its megafauna, such as whale sharks, dolphins, humpback whales, dugongs, manta rays and turtles. It is also home to hundreds of species of fish, mollusks, corals, sponges and other marine invertebrates.

The Ningaloo Reef

As of 2009 there were known reserves of 190 163 119 460 000 m³ natural gas worldwide. Each year the world uses 3 198 000 000 000 m³ of gas; if we continue to use gas at the current rate then these reserves should last us 60 years. It is likely that consumption of gas will rise sharply in the next few decades as oil reserves start to run low.

This potential shortage has lead countries and extraction companies to extreme measures in the hunt for new gas resources, most notable 'Fracking', more properly Hydraulic Fracturing, a process by which pressurized fluid is forced into a gas bearing shale (mudstone) bed, causing a shock wave which (hopefully) releases a quantity of gas. This process has been linked to contamination of the water table in the eastern US and a small earthquake in England; the process has become controversial and deeply unpopular, and proposals for new fracking operations regularly attract large demonstrations. South Africa has recently placed a moratorium on fracking (which is being challenged in the courts by Shell), and other countries may follow suit. In this environment it is unsurprising that companies may be interested in reserves which can be worked by more conventional means.

Shell's environmental record has not always been good; the company is generally loathed by environmental groups. In particular the companies operations in the Niger Delta, where it has become implicated in a toxic mix of environmental destruction and political corruption, have been highly damaging to the companies reputation, if not its coffers. This means that when the company's name comes up in connection with a controversial project, the feathers are bound to fly.

A Nigerian protestor at an anti-Shell rally in San Francisco, California. In the modern world problems can travel.

In a world where resources are running low, then governments may sometimes have to make difficult choices about natural resources. The Australian government has been keen to emphasize its green credentials of late, forcing through unpopular carbon taxes. Logically if a government wishes to reduce carbon emissions, then it should be trying to find alternatives to fossil fuels, something that previous Australian governments have not always been good at. However it is quite conceivable that a government trying to switch to alternative methods of energy production may find that it cannot do this rapidly enough to avoid the need for new gas sources, and be reluctant to turn to sources overseas to fill this gap, in which case it might well turn to resources in places otherwise considered off limits. However if a government does feel the need to do this then it needs to be sure that it is seen to be acting in the best interest of its people, not that of multinational corporations.

A Hawksbill Turtle on the Ningaloo Reef.

See also Rethinking Energy and Walking with Giant Wombats.