Timor Sea Drilling Spill – What Happened?

Still smoking: fire-damaged Montara platform (left) and West Atlas jackup drilling rig (right). The $250M rig is a total loss. See more photos at WA Today and in SkyTruth’s gallery.

The Montara platform operator, PTTEP, claims it knows what caused the August 21 blowout that lead to this massive oil spill, but is withholding that information from the public. Meanwhile a whistleblower has come forward into the information vacuum to claim that the drillers had been taking shortcuts:

Thai-based PTTEP said last week it knew the cause of the spill but would not disclose it, but the industry insider said schedule and cost were put ahead of safety and the environment…

He said he believed six wells were being drilled that morning and the third of those was being drilled when the first well blew…

“This in my opinion was because they were trying to save time so they drilled to a certain depth and did not plug it securely because they did not expect flow.

I’m not sure how much credibility to give this. A rig can only drill one well at a time, and these wells were going beyond 8,000 feet. It takes days to drill to that depth. So the information that “six wells were being drilled that morning” is suspect.

Nevertheless, something certainly did go wrong on August 21, and the Australian government launched an investigation to discover the cause and evaluate possible weaknesses in their oversight of drilling, spill response capabilities, decisionmaking. Here in the U.S., where we’re on the verge of allowing new drilling in areas where it’s been off-limits for decades (such as Florida, the Carolinas, Virginia and parts of Alaska), folks are impatiently awaiting definitive word on what caused the Montara blowout. Some have suggested “it could never happen here.” Until we know the actual cause, we can’t draw any firm conclusions.

But one thing is certain: a spill like this is extremely expensive. The $250M West Atlas drill rig has been destroyed. Replacing the damaged topsides of the Montara oil platform will cost at least $16M. PTTEP estimates the costs of the lost well and their response actions to approach $170M. Australian taxpayers have spent more than $5M for spill response activities so far, which ultimately may be repaid by PTTEP. What’s unknown at this time are the economic losses that could be suffered by Western Australia’s $8M fishing industry, and the potential for long-term damage to the environment. NGOs also claim significant damage in Indonesia, with reports of bankruptcy among the fishermen of Timor.

Peter Garrett, Australia’s Environment Minister, is being criticized for defending what some characterize as a tepid government reponse to this major oil spill. A little irony here: Peter was lead singer for the group Midnight Oil (no joke). In the mid-80s he rocked my world with Power and the Passion. I jumped all over the room like a spaz whenever I heard that tune. I still do, only slower. More irony: in 1991 Midnight Oil played an illegal concert outside Exxon headquarters in New York to protest the Exxon Valdez spill. Check out the video.

One day in the mid-1980s, Peter flashed me the peace sign when I called out his name as he strode down M Street in Georgetown before a show in DC. I was a newbie geologist and he was a famous and idealistic singer. I wonder if he remembers the lyrics he wrote back in the day:

Sometimes you’ve got to take the hardest line.

See all of SkyTruth’s photos, maps and satellite images of the Montara spill. Read all our blog posts on this subject.

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2 replies
  1. C says:

    Hi there,
    WA's fishing industry is actually 'worth' considerably more than $8M: depeartment of fisheries website gives $400M, and WAFIC claim its value of $1.2b to the state economy. Your figure may be accurate for the immediately affected area, but I just thought I would clarify!
    Bloody great blog btw

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