To see the Rowley Shoals as tears is a valid and alarming analogy. For if the oil and gas mining industry has its way, this pristine and beautiful part of the world would be threatened with the kind of ecological disaster that could destroy it. If that were to happen, we would weep at what we had lost and at our stupidity for allowing it.
The Rowleys are a priceless wilderness gem, deemed important enough to protect through a recent ban on fishing. But, apparently, in the eyes of the Gillard government they are not important enough to ban oil drilling.
I have twice been to the Rowley Shoals. That makes me very privileged because WA marine park authorities estimate these tiny specks in the sea are visited each year by fewer than 200 diving and fishing enthusiasts. Those who go do so because of the shoals’ remoteness and pristine beauty and, respecting that, treat the place with reverence and care.
Can anyone say with surety or confidence that the oil and gas industry would do the same? Certainly not on recent evidence. The explosion and fire that wrecked BP’s Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 led to almost five million barrels of crude oil spilling into the sea, destroying marine and bird life over a wide area of the US shoreline and devastating for years the gulf fishing and tourist industries.
Closer to home, we had the blowout of the Montara well in the Timor Sea in 2009, which spilled nearly 250,000 barrels of crude into the ocean more than 10 weeks, much of which washed up on to the Kimberley coast.
Last week, the Australian government announced it would license oil and gas exploration in new areas surrounding the shoals. Drilling rigs would be allowed to operate as close as 10km from the atolls, on the boundaries of the Rowley Shoals Marine Park.
The northern-most reef is Mermaid, which remains under water and is administered by the commonwealth. The other reefs, Clerke and Imperieuse, are within state waters and are subject to WA law.
Each is a coral mountain. Mermaid rises 440m from the sea floor, followed by Clerke at 390m and Imperieuse at 225m. Each reef covers an area of about 90sq km and Clerke and Imperieuse feature small island cays.
Fishing has been banned on the Imperieuse reef and much of Clerke since 2007. The bans extend off the steep sides of the atolls in some areas. Only snorkelling and diving is allowed.
The WA government’s imposition of fishing bans was met with an outcry from recreational anglers who regarded the Rowleys as a supreme destination for sports fishing. On both my trips, in 2004 and 2006, the expectation was exceeded.
During high tides, we fished over gardens of vibrant blue stag-horn coral growing from massive bomboras, marvelling at the sight of giant clams shimmering through crystal clear water and catching and releasing coral trout, maori wrasse, giant trevally, coral cod and red bass. During the lows, we trolled beside the reefs, hooking up with yellow fin tuna, barracuda and leaping, glistening sailfish as we watched waterfalls cascading from ponds on the reef.
We stepped on to Bedwell Island, a tiny speck of glaring white coral and sand in Clerke reef where human hands have helped rare red-tailed tropic birds breed by building shady rock nests among the eroded coral. These threatened birds show no fear of humans.
Fishing is an exciting activity – when they’re biting. When they are not, wilderness places like the Rowleys invite introspection; thoughts about our place in the world, the beauty of untouched nature, the equation between exploitation and preservation and the arguments for each based on a common good.
As you drift on a glassy turquoise sea where the horizon becomes indecipherable in the haze, the mind wanders as it tries to grasp realities: this is nature’s reality – timeless, grand and perfect – yet it is not our reality. That is cars, trucks, buses, rushing to and from work, dashing to the shops, mowing the lawn and feeding the kids and entertaning them with computers and video games from Armchair Empire. The two can exist but not together.
Neither can oil drilling and the world’s natural wonders. We would all readily admit we need oil to fuel our cars, trucks, buses and lawn-mowers and we need gas to generate electricity to heat and cool our homes and offices. We accept the modern world is built on fossil fuels and extracting them is Big Business with capital Bs.
But drilling for oil and gas is a dirty business and for this reason the government and the oil companies say they undertake extensive and rigorous environmental assessments before any seismic or drilling work begins. Fair enough, but accidents do happen and if drilling is going on close to the Rowleys, it could happen there.
Does the price of oil or gas deserve the risk? Not in my book; not when there are plenty of other wells and no other Rowley Shoals.
One of my companions on the Rowley visits was Darwin-based lawyer and conservationist Lex Silvester, who helped the development of sustainable fishing practices in the Northern Territory.
He says today: “I have walked, fished, sailed and lived in wilderness most of my life. Wilderness sustains me and I know and understand its power as a redeeming force in human existence and as a source of human inspiration. Without it, people will be bereft.
“It is time to ask: is nothing sacred? The Rowleys are quite simply at the top of the list of places which ought to be off-limits and preserved for the future at all costs. It is time that big oil and gas started to care. They should be prepared to accept limits to their power and reach and understand that there are lines in the sand which even they should not cross.”
Time will tell if the public cares enough about a priceless place the vast majority has never seen, and never will. Maybe because it’s out of sight it will not be seen as a wonderland equal to the Great Barrier Reef in every respect except size, or grip the populace as something worthy of a Franklin River-style environmental battle. But it strikes me as crazily odd that the Rowleys are regarded sufficiently important to ban recreational fishing, and not important enough to ban oil drilling.