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Ningaloo natural beauty under threat if Woodside has its way

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Environment Minister Sussan Ley has been criticised for her failure to protect the Barrier Reef (Screenshot via YouTube)

If a precedent is set, allowing Woodside Energy to improperly dispose of a poorly maintained, toxic oil-rig, Australians may lose the chance to protect wild places like the Ningaloo Coast, writes Corinna Elaine.

HOW TO celebrate the tenth anniversary of the World Heritage listing of the Ningaloo Coast may have been a quandary that Woodside Energy deliberated long and hard about last year.

A decade of international recognition and protection for the spectacular region followed its listing by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2011.

The Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area was inscribed on the World Heritage List under two of the natural World Heritage Outstanding Universal Value criteria:

  • containing areas of incredible natural beauty; and
  • containing the most important and significant natural habitats for in situ conservation of biological diversity.

It is a significant milestone – they don’t give the listing out to just any old place.

Woodside, one of Australia’s biggest oil and gas companies – with its headquarters in Perth – has benefitted richly from the region’s wealthy reserves of fossil fuels. Imagine its gratitude for the tax-payer subsidised bounty where profits on 80 million barrels of oil must have made many a Chief Executive Officer, board member and investor happy.

One would think we'd do everything to honour this precious bastion of the wild — home to the whale shark, dugong, orca, humpback whale, manta ray and a myriad of dolphin species. Also, a range of sharks: hammerhead, great white, grey nurse and the black (or the white) tipped reef shark; over 130 different types of nudibranchs and more. The list of marine animals is impressive.

Says UNESCO:

In addition to the remarkable aggregations of whale sharks, the Ningaloo Reef harbours a high marine diversity of more than 300 documented coral species, over 700 reef fish species, roughly 650 mollusc species, as well as around 600 crustacean species and more than 1,000 species of marine algae. The high numbers of 155 sponge species and 25 new species of echinoderms add to the significance of the area. On the ecotone, between tropical and temperate waters, the Ningaloo Coast hosts an unusual diversity of marine turtle species with an estimated 10,000 nests deposited along the coast annually.

However, Woodside, these upstanding citizens of the corporate business world, would deliver the gift of a poorly maintained, highly toxic oil-rig, under the guise that it’s going to become a "recreational" reef. In reality, Woodside want to simply sink the rig, leaving heaps of rubbish (plastic, soluble heavy metals and polyurethane) just a few kilometres from the Ningaloo Coast. 

Humans... you gotta love us, right? We are the only creatures that pollute our own environment. There is no other creature that fouls its own bed. We build the infrastructure, change an environment and then…

So, who will stand up to these polluters? Surely, some protection already exists — a government minister or legislation, a non-government organisation (NGO) or vocal locals? Well,  yes, all of those do exist.  

But, where does the Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley, stand on this?  Surely she has a great love for all things reef-related? Her outstanding commitment to attempt to ensure the Great Barrier Reef was not listed as "in danger" by the World Heritage Committee would suggest otherwise — never mind what scientists say.

There’s the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), which claims independence and expertise in regards to its oversight of off-shore structures and activities in Commonwealth waters (“Commonwealth”, meaning it belongs to the Australian people). NOPSEMA has given preliminary approval to the dumping while also recognising the company may be in breach of the law.

The Western Australia State Government? The wily-Woodsiders don’t have to worry too much about those pesky Labor Party people, with their massive parliamentary majority and commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is all being done in Commonwealth waters — under the supervision of the current Federal Government.

Other NGOs? What are they saying? Recfishwest, the state’s largest recreational fishing representative group, is in partnership with Woodside. It clearly states on the group's website that it has a long track record of partnering with organisations that align with its values. Okay. Recfishwest has also applied to the Federal Government to allow the dumping to go ahead under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981.

The Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Advisory Committee, the Australian Conservation FoundationProtect Ningaloo and Cape Conservation Group all agree in opposing the dumping.

Over the next 25 years, many oil platforms are due to cease production. If a precedent is set here, allowing Woodside to abdicate its responsibility in how it disposes of its rubbish, then the tone is set. The fossil fuel industry would save itself a massive clean-up bill. Australians will lose the chance to protect and re-sanctify this wild place for its wild inhabitants.

So, "Happy Anniversary, beautiful!" 

Anyone who shares this sentiment of love for the World Heritage Listed Ningaloo Coast might like to send a message via the Minister for the Environment — they’d both love to hear from you.

Corinna Elaine is a journalist.

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