Meraiah Foley

Visitors hoping to peek at Australia’s exotic marine life usually head straight for the Great Barrier Reef. But conservationists say an equally remarkable, but lesser known, marine environment is under threat from the booming oil and gas exploration taking place among the reefs and atolls off Australia’s northwest coast.

A damaged oil well in the region has been spewing thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Timor Sea since Aug. 21, when a blowout forced the evacuation of all 69 workers on the platform. Emergency crews have been working to contain the spill, but officials say it could take three more weeks to plug the leak.

The platform is above the Montara oil field in the remote Kimberley region of Australia. The leaking well head is owned by Thailand’s national petroleum company, PTT Exploration and Production, one of many energy companies that have set up operations in western Australia to feed Asia’s growing appetite for oil and gas.

In the first half of this year, more than 50 wells were drilled in the tropical waters off western Australia, adding to hundreds of other recent projects. Last month, the government gave Chevron the green light to expand its exploration of the huge Gorgon gas field, a $40 billion project that was opposed by conservationists because of its potential environmental impact.

Economists credit the booming trade in petroleum and other mineral resources for helping Australia escape the brunt of the global economic downturn, but environmentalists say this prosperity comes at a price. They say the Montara oil spill is merely a sign of things to come unless greater protections are extended to vast stretches of tropical reefs off northwestern Australia.

“It’s a classic conflict between development and the ecological values of the region,” said John Carey, manager of the Kimberley Conservation Program with the Pew Environment Group. ``We need to get the balance right. But the balance at the moment is that less than 1 percent of this globally significant area is under any form of protection.”

The Thai oil company said it was still investigating what had caused the blowout. To stop the spill, the company has hired a specialist rig to drill 1.6 miles below the seabed and flood the area with heavy mud. But such highly specialised equipment is not easy to come by. It took three weeks to tow the rig from Singapore.

The company has declined to estimate how much oil has spilled into the sea, saying it is too dangerous to take accurate measurements from the damaged rig. The company and Australian maritime officials, who are helping to clean up the spill, say that the slick is around 25 miles wide and 85 miles long, but that the leakage appears to be slowing.

The federal environment minister, Peter Garrett, said this month that the government believed that 300 to 400 barrels of oil were leaking into the sea each day. That amounts to more than 450,000 gallons of oil, and unknown quantities of gas and condensate, since the blowout began. By that count, the Montara leak is relatively small. The Exxon Valdez, by comparison, dumped around 11 million gallons when it ran aground off the Alaskan coast in 1989. The oil slick has not reached any coastlines, thanks in part to mild weather conditions and efforts by the government. But conservationists worry that the spill could take a heavy toll on marine animals.— © 2009 The New York Times News Service