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Dishing the dirt on Santos' Queensland oil spill

In May oil spilled from a well in south-west Queensland owned by Australian oil and gas company Santos. In what may be the state’s third largest spill, more than 250,000 litres of oil flowed from the well…

Lucky it’s dry: if the Channel Country was in flood, oil could have flowed into Lake Eyre. Flickr/Euclid vanderKroew

In May oil spilled from a well in south-west Queensland owned by Australian oil and gas company Santos. In what may be the state’s third largest spill, more than 250,000 litres of oil flowed from the well into the surrounding environment.

While Santos has plugged the well and cleaned the area, the state government monitored the spill via satellite. So, when it comes to oil spills, who is responsible for regulation?

The spill itself is not a particularly huge amount of oil, but it is significant for the potential effects on both the local and wider environment. The leak occurred in the Channel Country, where rain flows over the country like ribbons rather than rivers, and eventually flows into Australia’s inland icon, Lake Eyre.

For Santos and the migratory birds that use Lake Eyre as a breeding ground, it was fortunate there were no rains or floods at the time of the spill. Santos claims now that all of the contaminated soil has been removed to a bioremediation area.

Arguably the most important issue that arises out of the Santos incident is that of well integrity and well control. Well integrity involves maintaining control of a well so it doesn’t leak. Loss of control was the cause of BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Montara oil spill off the coast of Western Australia.

Well control is at the heart of preventing environmental harm, but it’s not assessed as part of the environmental plan. Instead, it’s assessed as part of well management. The environment plan and the well operations management plan are treated as two separate systems. And this is the heart of the regulatory problem.

So, what’s the difference?

Environmental management tries to reduce the impact of any activity to as low as reasonably practicable, whereas well management utilises a minimum standard of good oilfield practice according to what other companies are doing to maintain well control and integrity. Environment and safety might be regulated to the max, but well integrity is regulated to the minimum. And it’s this that causes oil spills when it goes wrong.

Jurisdictions such as Norway integrate the two systems to ensure that the assessment of the activity occurs as one integrated assessment, to a maximum standard. Unless and until this occurs, this oil spill conundrum will continue.

Santos has responded to the spill in a manner that is consistent with a spill-response plan – stop the source of the oil spill, and remove the oil that flowed over the surface. The ABC reports a team of US specialists were brought in to help out, and the spill was contained within six days.

But the fact it took six days for US specialists to contain the leak indicates a lack of local response capability that must be investigated and addressed. Whether Santos’ response was adequate will be confirmed when the company’s report into the incident is released in two weeks.

In the meantime the oil spill brings to the fore the larger issue of the government response to the spill itself. If this incident had involved the injury or death of a person, government inspectors are required to immediately attend the site of the incident and investigate. Such investigations could lead to remedial action or prosecution.

According to media reports, no personnel from the Queensland Department of Environment have attended this incident. Since it is an environmental issue, the spill was handled by the company. The Department of Natural Resources and Mines was notified, and two of its officials were onsite within 24 hours.* While the government has said it used satellite data to monitor the area and verify Santos’ reporting of the incident, the spill highlights the weaknesses of the present regulatory framework to respond to environmental issues.

The regulator, whoever it is, needs to look beyond the immediate effects of the incident to what could have been.

*This paragraph was corrected on June 15. It previously said no government officials had attended the spill.

Join the conversation

10 Comments sorted by

  1. margaret m

    old lady

    Trust us the mining companies say we will ensure all safety measures are in place we cannot afford the risk or the Liberal Country Party Governments that supports big mining concers against the wishes of I think the majority of the people of those areas.

  2. Steve Davis

    Brian Surgeon

    I wonder how Santos is going to remediate the remediation area.

    Perhaps instead of all the $$ they are spending on propaganda they should get their house in order.

  3. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    A one-off or are there more ... and would they admit it?

    SANTOS acknowledged proceedings against them by NSW government in relation to past reporting failures related to coal seam gas operations. Their operations in the Pilliga Forest in north-west NSW, previously owned and operated by Eastern Star, with John Anderson (once deputy prime minister) on the board. Santos acknowledge the failures, and is reported to commit more than $17 million to remediation works.

    "Santos has always made clear that the rehabilitation of small impacted areas of the Pilliga Forest will be addressed prior to our investment in a safe, sustainable project that could deliver in excess of 25 per cent of NSW's gas needs."

    The NSW government claims Eastern Star failed to notify many breaches, including a spill of untreated water and failed to lodge environmental management reports.

    It said proceedings are being taken against Santos because it took over Eastern Star.

  4. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    I went to Google and typed in 'volume of lake eyre' and 8 cubic kilometres of water appeared in the first hit. So, if 250,000 litres of crude oil contaminated 8,000,000,000,000 litres of flood water, then the contaminant level would be 0.000000003125% or 0.003125 parts per million or 3.125 parts per trillion - pollution levels so low as to be inconsequential!
    Of course, a 250 tonne leak of crude oil is a serious pollution event and the results would have been highly impacting on biological life…

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    1. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      When did it (Lake Eyre) actually last hold that volume Bernie?

      I too went to Google and found (as you could have, being an 'environmental consultant') that Lake Eyre experiences a small (1.5 m) flood every 3 years, a large (4 m) flood every 10 years and fills an average of only four times each century! That it is some 15 metres below sea-level.

      So be a good lad and rework your figures (unless you're toady for the likes of Santos) ...

    2. Bernie Masters

      environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      No need to be condescending, Daniel. I've explained where I got my 8 cubic metre figure from, but none of your numbers are volumes, so it's hard to relate 250,000 litres of crude oil to the seriousness or otherwise of Santos' pollution event. And it really doesn't matter whether Lake Eyre is 15 metres or 1500 metres below sea level. The issue is: why did the article open with a suggestion or implication that it would have been an environmental disaster if Lake Eyre had been in flood when clearly, it would not have been a disaster by any measure.

    3. margaret m

      old lady

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      I don't thing the scaremongering fits when it comes to the Oil Industry we have had numerous disasters and wide spread polution and less than ethical practices in various parts of the world. There is much that can go wrong obvious and possibly not so obvious those are the worryiing factors and each time there is an accident no apology for the real concerns raised re this industry. Ask the farmers their land ithey cannot protect it against this industry unless we have a government willing to stand up to big mining but they no longer own many income generating assets assume they are in a catch 22 position need revenue.

    4. Michael Swifte


      In reply to Bernie Masters

      So Bernie, your input into this discussion is to question and deconstruct the caption on the photo while attempting to dilute the significance of this spill?

      The thrust of the article is that there has been an abject failure to ensure that effective regulation and oversight of an industry that threatens an extremely significant body of water.

      We have every reason to question your intentions in taking this critical position. I don't think it was to maintain 'caption integrity'.

      My guess is that it's not about maintaining the integrity of this forum.

      I made every effort to hold the minister responsible to account. And while the environment movement and the media have been disturbingly slow to act, my feeling is that collusion between SANTOS, APPEA, and the QLD government has delivered a situation where industry has not been compelled to develop and deliver contingency plans that effectively manage risks to important habitat.

  5. Michael Swifte


    Earnest environmentalists and editorial irresponsible Fairfax media have played right into the hands of the QLD government and the deeply obfuscating minister for Environment and Heritage Protection, Andrew Powell.

    How do I know this?

    Because the moment I heard about the spill on 19th May I began harassing the media advisors to minister Powell. After 2 days of calling every 2 hours demanding the minister make a statement I received an email from his media advisor with a nothing statement which…

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  6. margaret m

    old lady

    Can I with indulgence repeat an important factor in all of this Liberal Country Party are pushing for smaller government and selling off of the last of Taxpayers income generating assets.

    It cost money to provide the inspectors, services that will ensure that big business is complying with regulations. It take a lot of money to pursue compensation restitution Big business multinationals have more money than government and can delay and make the cost prohibitive.

    If Mr Hockey, Abbott are…

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