Timor Sea Drilling Spill: Two Months and Still Going

The ongoing Montara / West Atlas oil spill in the Timor Sea off Western Australia is now in its 62nd day. So far, three attempts to intercept and plug the leaking well have failed. Another attempt should happen today. A MODIS / Terra satellite image taken on October 21 – exactly two months after the blowout and spill began – shows slicks and sheen covering 2,600 square miles and approaching within 35 miles of the Kimberley coast. Satellite images show that oil has been moving to the south-southeast from the Montara platform, toward Australia, for the past few days:

NASA/MODIS satellite image, October 21, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis. See all of SkyTruth’s images here.

The Australian Senate held a hearing this week on this relentless spill and the oil company, PTTEP, could offer no justification for their oft-repeated estimate that 400 barrels of oil per day were spewing from the damaged well. This estimate may be an order of magnitude too low. As reported today in The Australian:


A Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism official told Greens senator Rachel Siewert on Wednesday: “The maximum leakage rate from that well could be as much as 2000 barrels of oil a day, with condensate as well.”

Senator Siewert acknowledged that did not mean 2000 barrels were actually coming out, rather that it was the maximum amount possible if the well were operating at full capacity.


At the 2,000 barrel per day rate, over 5 million gallons would have been spilled so far. That’s getting into Exxon Valdez territory.

Could this happen in the US? We can’t say until we get more details about what caused this blowout. But it’s worth noting than in the US Gulf of Mexico, blowouts are not rare occurrences: the US Minerals Management Service has investigated 18 blowouts and 13 “loss of well control” incidents since 1983, several involving fires and fatalities. In 1992, the Greenhill Petroleum blowout and fire sent 70,000-120,000 gallons of oil into Timbalier Bay, Louisiana. Blowouts happened twice in 2007, and the most recent loss of well control was in 2008. And many more, less-serious, incidents can be found here.

3 replies
  1. raiketak says:

    Hi John – Great blogging. I am a "Timor" blogger – just tried to draw more attention to the spill on mine. I have been so saddened and shocked by the lack of concern for this spill. I only wish I had discovered your blog sooner.

    Best regards,

  2. Red Hand says:

    Millions of litres of oil continues to be belched into waters and the gas emissions have not even been monitored in an area that contains one of the richest marine faunas in the world. The livelihoods of Timor and Indonesian fishermen are now at a great risk. The Rudd government is setting up an inquiry into the spill. However, it did not stop the Australian government issuing the same Thai company PTTEP control over five new exploration licences and several oilfields in Australian waters.

    Despite growing concerns about the impact of the two-month oil leak, the $11 million purchase of new oil assets was supported by Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and Australia's Foreign Investment Review Board. Purchased from fellow oil exploration company OMV, the licences give PTTEP control of an extra 1480 square kilometres of Australian waters near the leaking Montara rig, about 650 kilometres west of Darwin.
    The Wild West policies of the governments that are encouraging the oil and gas prospecting and production is leading us into an environmental disaster. This spill is so big it can be observed from space. Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson is appointing a commissioner to set terms of reference for the inquiry into the spill in the Montara oilfield. The government rejected an amendment from Greens Senator Rachel Siewert to enshrine broad terms of reference for future investigations of this type. She was concerned the probe might only look into the technical and regulatory issues and not review the clean-up operations or the environmental impacts of the spill.

  3. Red Hand says:

    Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) (ANTARA News) – East Nusa Tenggara`s Environmental Affairs Agency (BLHD) has confirmed that Timor Sea waters have been contaminated with oil leaked from an explosion at the Montara oil field.

    "Based on samples obtained in a survey conducted by BLHD in four different locations (in Timor Sea) last October 23, the sea waters is above the national water quality standard in line with the Environmental Affairs Minister`s Decree no. 51/2004," NTT BLHD Head Alexander Oematan said here on Tuesday.

    The results of physical analysis conducted at the NTT BLHD laboratory showed that a water sample taken at the coordinate of 11.31.213 degrees southern latitude and 122.59.530 degrees eastern longitude, around five miles of Landu Isle, smelled oily, with turbidity at 165.5 NTU (Nephelometric Turbidity Units), and had an oil layer.

    At the second point at the coordinate of 11.09.372 degrees southern latitude, and 122.56.960 degrees eastern longitude, around 10 miles of Ndana Isle as well as in Rote Ndao District, the water sample also smelled oily, with 569 NTU.

    The chemical analysis also showed that the fat oil content was above the national water quality standard, Oematan said.The findings confirmed that the Timor Sea was polluted and efforts should be taken to prevent the destruction of marine species in the area, he said.

    Oil, gas and condensate have been polluting the Timor Sea since the blow out happened at a rig of PTT Exploration & Production Pcl, the operator of the Montara offshore oil field on August 21, 2009. The rig is located around 690 km west of Darwin, North Australia, and 250 km northwest of Truscott in West Australia.

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