Montara Oil Spill: Six Years without Compensation

West Atlas

Published Aug 31, 2015 3:44 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Australian government has failed in its responsibility to investigate the effects of the country’s worst-ever oil spill from an oil rig, from which devastated fishing villages and communities across Indonesia still feel the impact today, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said last week.

Six years ago on August 21, 2009, the Montara oil spill spewed oil and gas into waters of the Timor Sea for 74 days. Millions of liters of oil polluted the ocean, creating oil slicks which soon stretched over the horizon towards Indonesia, and Australian authorities applied 184,000 liters of dispersant to the oil as it flowed north.

The spill occurred in the Montara oil field 690km (430 miles) west of Darwin following a blowout from the Montara wellhead platform. The rig involved, the West Atlas, was owned by Seadrill and operated by PTTEP Australasia.

Since the spill, local economies in the closest region of Indonesia, Nusa Tenggara Timur, have reported losses totalling billions of Australian dollars, with communities also reporting widespread sickness and health conditions they claim are caused by the oil spill.

Australian Lawyers Alliance National President Greg Phelps said it was absolutely shameful that there was still no proper independent research conducted in affected areas to assess the damage caused by the Montara spill.

“For six years, the Australian government has ignored the reportedly multi-billion dollar impacts of the Montara oil spill in Indonesia,” Phelps said. “Despite being specifically asked by the Indonesian government for assistance last year, the Australian government has made no effort of any kind.”

This is appalling, given the importance of the Australian-Indonesian relationship, Phelps said. “Australia has turned a blind eye to the damage that has burdened our closest neighbors, despite the fact that oil flowed from an Australian-registered company, in Australian waters, under the failed watch of an Australian regulator.

“Under international law, a state is meant to ensure that damage from activities in their own state does not impinge on the sovereignty of another. This has clearly not been done,” Phelps said.

“Eyewitnesses in Indonesia saw oil on their coastline. The polluting company said that the oil never got there. The Australian government has buried its head in the sand.”

The Australian Lawyers Alliance found in its investigation that oil reached the Indonesian coast. “The Montara oil spill was a major environmental catastrophe on Australia’s watch.”
Entire communities have been kept in the dark about why their livelihoods have been destroyed and what Australia is going to do to fix its mess,” Phelps said.

“At the moment, it looks like Australia intends to do nothing and is waiting for the issue to quietly go away. Meanwhile these people are left to worry about their future and the futures of their children, as people around them grow ill, and their economy continues in crisis.”  

Phelps said that in 2010, the Montara Commission of Inquiry (which had powers almost equivalent to a royal commission) found that “evidence before the Inquiry indicated that hydrocarbons entered Indonesian and Timor Leste waters to a significant degree.”

He said however that despite such findings, there has been no effort to investigate this finding further, and to follow the oil.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance’s report found that within a fortnight of the spill, Indonesian fishermen and coastal communities reported that the oil was fouling their fishing grounds, killing fish and destroying seaweed farms. People began experiencing itchy skin conditions, inexplicable bruising and severe food poisoning requiring hospitalization.

“Nothing is stopping the Australian government from making an offer of assistance to Indonesia, especially given that, prior to the 2013 election, Prime Minister Tony Abbott described Australia’s relationship with Indonesia as perhaps our most important relationship,” Phelps said. “We encourage the government to recognize the nature of this relationship and finally act to find out what happened as a result of the Montara oil spill.”

On May 25, 2011, Australia’s Minister for Resources and Energy at the time, Martin Ferguson,released the Australian Government's final response to the Report of the Montara Commission of Inquiry.

The inquiry determined that the source of the blowout was the result of the primary well control barrier failing. The report presents evidence that some weathered oil had crossed into Indonesia’s EEZ. On accepting the report, the minister said that compensation was a matter between the Indonesian Government and PTTEP.

The report noted that initial cementing problems were compounded by only one of the two planned secondary well control barriers – pressure containing anti-corrosion caps – being installed. The report states the conclusion that PTTEP Australasia therefore did not observe sensible oilfield practices at the Montara oilfield.

The Montara incident was the first well blowout in Australia in over 25 years.