WWF-Australia relied on SkyTruth’s monitoring of a disastrous oil spill to see the damage firsthand. Their testimony helped small-scale farmers recover damages from big oil.
Late on a Friday afternoon in August 2009, Ghislaine Llewellyn was getting ready to shut down her computer after a long week. She was Conservation Director for WWF-Australia and had been working hard to protect Australia’s Kimberley Coast, one of the most biodiverse tropical marine waters in the world. Just as she was about to start her weekend, news popped up on her screen – a blowout was occurring at a well in the Montara oil and gas field off the coast. As news arrived that crew members were jumping off the platform in case of fire, Llewellyn thought to herself, “Oh sh*t. This is serious.”
That spill turned out to be the third largest oil spill in Australian waters, gushing 80,000 gallons of oil into the sea every day for 10 weeks. It was so big that it spread into Indonesian waters 150 nautical miles away, destroying the crops of small-scale seaweed farmers on the Indonesian islands of Rote and Kupang for years afterward.
Three months later, SkyTruth President John Amos testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that a similar disaster could occur in the United States. After all, the Montara drilling operation was conducted by a major international company that also worked in the Gulf of Mexico, not some fly-by-night operator. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu dismissed his concerns, claiming that such an accident could never occur in the U.S. Five months after that, a blowout occurred on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest accidental oil spill in world history, with devastating consequences for marine life, fisheries, and coastal livelihoods, particularly in Louisiana. Thanks in part to SkyTruth’s work monitoring the size of that spill, BP has paid billions in cleanup and restoration fees to states, communities, and others (as required by federal law) in an effort to make those affected whole.
Fast forward to March 2021, almost 12 years after the Montara spill. A court in Australia finally ordered the company responsible for the spill to compensate the Indonesian seaweed farmers harmed by that disaster, thanks in part to Llewellyn with guidance from SkyTruth. Because as the Montara spill continued for weeks and the company struggled to cap the blowout, Llewellyn became increasingly frustrated. The platform was a two-day boat ride offshore – so far out that she and the public had to rely on information from the government and the oil company, PTTEP Australasia, about the size of the spill, how far it was drifting, and who was affected. She was skeptical of their data. She wanted to see what was happening for herself.
So a month into the spill, Llewellyn realized “someone’s gotta bite the bullet and get out there.” She was trained as a geologist and had experience running scientific expeditions. She called Simon Mustoe of the consulting firm AES Applied Ecology Solutions to help. Mustoe found a boat available out of the city of Darwin: they could travel out towards the spill and see for themselves what was going on. But they had only three days for their expedition and were searching for a needle in a haystack. They needed some signposts. They turned to SkyTruth to point them in the right direction.
SkyTruth had been tracking the location and spread of the Montara spill with MODIS satellite imagery for weeks, posting its findings online for the world to see. With that information readily available, Llewellyn’s team headed out. They didn’t expect to find oil on the surface because media reports said it was limited to areas near the wellhead. Instead, their goal was to see what wildlife was potentially affected by the spill and get a feel for its size. But they started seeing waxy residue from the spill far from the site, in areas teeming with wildlife. As they got closer, they began to see the slicks. With oil patches all around them, they improvised a water sampling system. At one point, they shifted course as the acrid smell of oil fumes overwhelmed them, hurting their throats and making some team members feel sick.
After three days of surveying the water for wildlife, the team returned home and compiled their findings in a report. That report – along with stories from journalists who covered their expedition – generated lots of public interest. The takeaway: one of the most biodiverse areas of their ocean had lakes of oil on the surface as far as the eye could see. Dolphins were frequently surfacing and seabirds were feeding through a layer of oil. This should never happen again. And, just as importantly, the bad actors need to pay.
“Doing an expedition was something totally new for us and we could have found nothing,” Llewellyn says now. “But we knew where to go,” thanks to SkyTruth.
Eventually, the company stopped the leak and the Australian government established a Commission of Inquiry into the Montara Disaster. Llewellyn’s expedition report was submitted as part of the inquiry, along with several other scientific reports. One of the big contested questions, according to Llewellyn, was whether the spill reached Indonesian waters. Based on her observations at sea, Llewellyn thought it was highly likely. At the Inquiry hearings, the Australian Marine Safety Authority reversed its previous claims, and admitted that their aerial observations at the time revealed that the spill had entered Indonesian waters, according to Llewellyn. They formally corrected the error in 2018. This finding was key to the court case filed by Indonesian seaweed farmers: it was entirely possible that oil had reached Indonesian seaweed farms.
SkyTruth already knew this. In a series of blog posts during the spill, SkyTruth documented its massive spread. Less than two weeks into the months-long disaster, SkyTruth identified oil entering Indonesian waters as the spill grew to the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Later, SkyTruth posted a link to a trade magazine reporting that Indonesian officials confirmed oil from Montara had entered Indonesian waters.
Villagers in the Indonesian regions of Kubang and Rote had begun seaweed farming in the years preceding the spill because it enabled them to support their families better than other options available in their small villages. The lawsuit was a class action suit for farmers in 81 villages in these two regions, but the primary Applicant (or Plaintiff) was a man named Daniel Aristabulus Sanda; a father of five who had started seaweed farming in the year 2000. He testified to the court in an affidavit that his new business provided for his family better than any other opportunities available to him. But in late September 2009, several weeks after the Montara blowout, his seaweed crop died. He observed waxy oil residue in the water and oil sheen. His harvest levels in 2010 and subsequent years have been far lower than before the spill. Because of this, he testified that he has had to supplement his income with manual labor. About 30 other seaweed farmers submitted affidavits as well, helping to make the case for approximately 15,000 of their fellow farmers.
Llewellyn was one of dozens of experts who provided affidavits or testified in the case. In her affidavit, she confirmed that her expedition team had found waxy residue (presumably from the oil spill), oil sheen and heavy oil slicks far from the spill site – as much as 140 nautical miles from the site.
In the end, the judge believed Sanda, his fellow farmers, and the experts who testified that oil did reach the Indonesian islands of Rote and Kupang. He ordered PTTEP Australasia to compensate Sanda for the lost value of his crops from 2009–2014. Additional legal action will determine compensation levels for thousands of other farmers.
According to the law firm Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, representing the seaweed farmers, this was the first class-action environmental case to go to trial against an Australian company and win.
It took far too long for seaweed farmers to receive justice, with many experts arguing their case. We hope that SkyTruth’s monitoring played some small role in this big win. As we go forward, we’re bumping up our oil observations in the ocean with our project Cerulean. We know that monitoring matters and hope that next time, clear data will bring justice sooner to those who have been harmed.