Thursday, 27 May 2010 9:41 AM

Pacific Lessons to Learn from Deepwater Horizon Event

Press Release - 5,000 barrels estimated at over 800,000 litres (at the time of this article) of oil are being discharged daily into the Gulf of Mexico, washing ashore along the Gulf Coast in the United States lapping at the Louisiana shoreline.

This follows the tragic turn of events when an oil drilling rig caught fire, exploded, burned for two days and then sank in 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) of water killing 11 workers.

The recent Deepwater Horizon event has leaking oil reaching the US coastline with the local fishing industry facing an estimated loss of USD 1.5 million per month as they are unable to fish. This estimate does not include those that come under fire due to the ripple effect such as the net suppliers and tourism fishing industry who are all under threat.

The Deepwater Horizon mobile drilling rig belongs to Transocean, the world's biggest offshore drilling contractor under contract to BP Oil. Despite the efforts of the oil company to stop the leaks, which stemmed from three locations within the rig well riser pipe, oil is still pouring out from two of the leaks.

While this did not happen in our backyard, the stark reality is that oil related disasters, albeit of lesser magnitude and scale, though potentially as devastating, are an ever-present threat to our islands and our ocean. The smallness of most Pacific island nations makes us even more vulnerable to such disasters as, in many cases, we may not have the national capacity to respond effectively to address them but Horizon again shows, even industry and advanced countries can be similarly challenged.

The Deepwater Horizon incident should serve as a wake up call for the world to think seriously of the damage marine oil spills can cause, and to treat them as very real risks. The Pacific region, in particular, needs to be amongst those who need to be aware, given our lack of resources and capacity to cope with such a disaster.

If a global superpower is being faced with such immense negative repercussions, where would it leave us should we be struck by a massive oil spill disaster given our limited response measures and our almost total reliance on ocean and coastal resources?

One likely high-impact disaster could involve an oil tanker carrying Industrial Fuel Oil (IFO) as cargo. Fiji and New Caledonia are two of the few island countries that store and distribute IFO. Another, very real scenario could involve a vessel grounding or colliding and spilling the IFO that it uses for fuel, commonly known as "bunker fuel". At least one grounding incident is reported each year in the Pacific region. In 2009, the Forum Samoa II ran aground in the Apia Harbour and, while the volume spilt was insignificant, it could have been worse - the Forum Samoa II had the potential to spill 350 tonnes of IFO and 100 tonnes of diesel bunker fuel.

Another possible scenario could take place from the InterOil Napa Napa Refinery in Papua New Guinea, which has the highest volume of crude and other persistent oils being transported via ships throughout the Pacific region.

Potential oil drill sites as well as potential vessel slip docks such as those in Fiji, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu could also result in oil leaks and marine pollution.

Although these are all just "possible scenarios", oil spill disasters do happen in our region and cleanup is an expensive process. In April 2009, the Pacific Adventurer spilt 270 tonnes of IFO bunker fuel in Queensland, Australia. The total response and compensation cost for this incident was an estimated AUD 32 million.

Most of the oil spill threats in the Pacific islands region are ship-based, although the presence of an oil refinery, potential exploratory drill sites and vessel slip docks also present threats.

Addressing marine pollution from ships, including marine spills, needs to be prioritised by island countries. Currently, several Pacific island countries still only have draft National Marine Spill Contingency Plans for Tier II Spills that are yet to be approved. These, along with the responsible authority and the lead agencies, must be in place so we are not caught short should the Pacific region experience any large-scale marine oil spill.

Assistance from the International Maritime Organization, Australia, France, New Zealand and the United States of America has allowed the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) to work with governments of Pacific island countries and territories to strengthen the web of foundations which we can use to respond to the different types of marine spills.

SPREP has provided training in oil spill response to hundreds of Pacific islanders as well as procured oil spill equipment for three island countries - Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga. There is a lot of industry oil spill equipment in the larger island countries such as in Fiji and Papua New Guinea, however many of the smaller islands do not have oil spill equipment.

Many countries have also adopted the foundation templates provided by SPREP, particularly the model legislation developed by SPREP and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). The model legislation recommends a sustainable financing mechanism in the pollution levy. It has been promulgated in the Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga, while Fiji, Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands have used the template to develop similar legislation.

Yet, even if all Pacific islands countries and territories have necessary marine spill measures in place, there are still gaps which leave us vulnerable. For example, there are numerous anecdotal reports of incidents and near misses not being officially reported. These could potentially be used as learning tools to help avoid a major marine oil spill accident in our region. The lack of reporting and resources for monitoring of ship marine pollution incidents is one of the biggest issues.

A second issue is that of uncertainty and the need to identify and prepare for future and worst-case scenarios. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, there has been no previous incident where oil has consistently leaked over a matter of days into our ocean, so there is no way of knowing the future implications - environmentally, socially and economically. It has also meant that we are faced with the challenge of identifying solutions once the crisis is already upon us. With the Deepwater Horizon incident, close to one month after the event, and despite the rapid response of the oil company, successful solutions are still being sought to plug the oil leaks and to carry out effective clean up.

Better understanding of possible scenarios could help us pre-empt disasters and either prevent them altogether or to develop technologies and systems that will enable rapid response that avoids long term damage to our precious ocean and our island coastal ecosystems. Pacific and other small island developing states need to learn from the Deepwater Horizon incident and put in place steps to protect themselves. This means commitment by governments to international conventions, development of effective legislation and development of firm partnerships and networks for response.

The images the world is now seeing of the repercussions of the Deepwater Horizon Oil accident in the Gulf of Mexico should be the catalyst for action by the Pacific region to step up its preparedness.

Think about it.

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