Marine reserves creation would limit oil, gas drilling off Australia

The Australian government has announced the creation of a new network of marine reserves—believed to be the world’s largest—that will further limit oil and gas drilling as well as curb commercial fishing off the country’s coast.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke says the move will be proclaimed under national environment law and increase the current number of marine reserves to 60 from 27. This will expand the national network to cover in excess of one third of Australian waters equal to 3.1 million sq km.

Burke says the new network will help ensure that Australia’s diverse marine environment and the life it supports will remain healthy, productive, and resilient for future generations.

The reserves include vast areas of the Coral Sea off northeastern Australia, areas off the Kimberley coast of northwestern Australia, sections of the Great Australian Bight off southern Australia, and parts around Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands in the Tasman Sea off New South Wales.

Fishing and petroleum drilling will be prohibited in these regions.

The oil industry has won some concessions, however, with exploration allowed off part of southwest Western Australia and around the Rowley Shoals in the Kimberley where Woodside and Shell have recently been awarded exploration permits.

Most conservation groups are generally pleased with the idea of new marine reserves, although they are disappointed there are not more reservations off the Pilbara coast where much of the petroleum activity takes place.

The Western Australian government is not happy for the opposite reason. The State’s Mines and Petroleum Minister Norman Moore labelled the proposal a “dog’s breakfast” that will curtail the state’s oil and gas industry.

Moore added that it would impinge on current and future exploration and production activities as well as having the potential to impact on the security of domestic gas and LNG export supplies.

The minister said it was unclear at this stage how the proposal would affect the rights already granted for all exploration within the new protected and surrounding areas.

A final 60-day consultation period will be completed before the final marine reserves are declared, probably by yearend.

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