Media Releases - 07 April 2024

Esso’s Bass Strait pipeline spill shows the consequences of the deliberate delaying of cleaning up Australia’s ageing oil and gas infrastructure

On 6 April 2024 oil and gas company Esso reported a hydrocarbon spill into the ocean, believed to be from a pipeline connecting two oil platforms in the Bass Strait.

This spill is the latest in a series of environmental and worker safety issues plaguing the vast array of ageing oil and gas platforms, pipelines and wells littering Australia’s oceans.

Esso’s suspected pipeline failure yesterday follows a speight of incidents associated with long-delayed decommissioning efforts or reduced maintenance budgets, including a similar spill at Esso’s West Tuna oil export pipeline in 2017, the near-death of a worker during the decommissioning of Santos’ Sinbad platform near Varanus Island of the WA coast in 2021, the calamitous effort to remove Nganhurra Riser Turret Mooring and the last minute sale of the Northern Endeavour, leaving the clean up in the government’s hands.

The Wilderness Society has been sounding the alarm on the delayed decommissioning effort and cuts to maintenance budgets, and how industry’s cosy relationship with Australia’s national oil and gas regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) has allowed these risks to continue unabated.

Legally, oil and gas companies are required to entirely clean up and remove all infrastructure at the end of oil and gas production, yet companies including Woodside (part owners of Esso) and Santos have systematically dragged their feet on meeting this obligation, leading to the degradation of infrastructure making it more likely to cause environmental damage and threaten the lives of workers.

There is also now a concerning trend of companies, including Esso in relation to its Bream field pipeline and Santos with the Bayu-Undan pipeline, claiming that infrastructure will be used for future carbon pollution dumping projects. Such claims must be deeply questioned in light of increasing infrastructure failure, the unknown risks of such projects and potential for long term consequences. NOPSEMA must not allow carbon pollution dumping proposals to act as a front to avoid decommissioning.

Quotes attributable to Fern Cadman, Wilderness Society Fossil Fuel Campaigner:

“The litany of environmental and worker safety failings we are now seeing at ageing oil and gas assets, such as the Esso West Kingfish pipeline, is the result of NOPSEMA’s failure over many years to ensure companies actually meet legal decommissioning requirements.”

“We are seeing the number of incidents rise as the number of inspections and compliance actions decrease. It reeks of a captured regulator who puts fossil fuel company interests at the centre of its strategy rather than the protection of the environment and worker safety.”

“The oil and gas industry has a $60 billion and rising clean up bill on its hands, and is doing everything it can to avoid getting it done. It doesn’t want to spend the money and it doesn’t want these costs sitting on balance sheets. Unless regulators start using a big stick, this mess will only get worse, and it’s taxpayers, workers and the environment that will bear the costs.”

“Yesterday’s suspected pipeline rupture in the Bass Strait is deeply concerning, especially when we are seeing companies like Esso and Santos claiming that existing pipelines can be “repurposed” for future carbon pollution dumping - or carbon capture and storage as this industry calls it. NOPSEMA must not allow carbon pollution dumping proposals to act as a front to avoid decommissioning.”

“It is vital for NOPSEMA to shake off a history of woeful enforcement when it comes to decommissioning and actually hold companies to account for cleaning up their mess.”