Shell oil exploration threatens one of the world's great wonders

Anglo-Dutch conglomerate applies for permit to drill just 30 miles off World Heritage-listed coral reef in Western Australia

A A A

Shell Oil has come under heavy criticism for planning an oil and gas drilling site that could threaten a coral reef off the coast of Australia that is among the most valuable marine ecosystems on the planet.

Just 30 miles away from the marine park that protects Ningaloo Reef, a haven for sealife that was recently nominated for World Heritage status, the proposed drilling project has raised fears of an oil spill that could seriously damage the reef and the creatures that depend on it. Warnings of the risks come shortly after a major international report that three quarters of the world's coral reefs are under severe threat of ecological catastrophe from overfishing, pollution, and climate change. Ningaloo is one of the minority that is currently relatively protected from such dangers.

The fears of an oil spill have not just been raised because memories of BP's disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year are fresh. North-western Australia experienced its own massive spill in the Montara oilfield in the Timor Sea in 2009, which took 74 days to plug.

If a blow-out that size occurred at Ningaloo, it could seriously damage the 175-mile reef and jeopardise the marine life that depends on it, WWF-Australia warned yesterday. The group pointed to Shell Australia's own modelling, which envisages the worst-case scenario of an oil spill covering a substantial area just off the coast.

Shell itself insists that it has "a very strong commitment to the protection of biodiversity". But environmentalists are not reassured. "It only takes one accident to create an environmental catastrophe," said Robin Chapple, a state Greens politician in Western Australia.

Less well known than the Great Barrier Reef but equally spectacular, Ningaloo Reef is a haven for marine life, particularly the giant whale sharks that congregate there every autumn to feed. It is one of the longest fringing reefs on the planet.

One threat was fought off a decade ago, when plans for a major resort at Ningaloo were vetoed by the Western Australian government following a campaign backed by international celebrities.

Highly unusual because it hugs the coastline – at its nearest point, the reef is only 100 yards offshore – Ningaloo is home to 300 species of coral and 500 species of fish, including sharks, manta rays, dolphins and humpback whales. Four of the world's seven marine turtles, all of them vulnerable or endangered, are found in its turquoise waters.

But the area, close to the small town of Exmouth, is best known for the whale sharks – the world's biggest fish species, growing up to 18m (59ft) long – that gather from April to July, after a mass coral spawning. Eco-tourism operators offer visitors the chance to snorkel and dive with the enormous creatures.

In the early 2000s, plans to build a resort and marina were opposed by, among others, the actress Greta Scacchi and the British botanist David Bellamy, who called Ningaloo "one of the world's most special places". The Australian novelist Tim Winton, on winning Western Australia's main literary award in 2002, donated his A$25,000 prize money (equivalent to £8,850 then) to the campaign.

The following year, the state premier, Geoff Gallop, rejected the development proposal, saying it would jeopardise "one of the world's great natural wonders" and declaring: "Today we have drawn a line in the sand."

Nominated for World Heritage listing last year, Ningaloo is tipped to receive the nod from Unesco soon. In their submission, the state and federal governments describe it as "a unique place... unsurpassed among coral reefs for displaying the interaction of history, physical environment and ecology".

Nevertheless, the two governments, which would receive millions of dollars in royalties if oil and gas were found, are expected to approve Shell's proposal to spend 60 days drilling in mile-deep waters, possibly as early as September.

In a statement, Shell said it applied "a very high standard of operating practices" and adhered to "strict environmental plans in all our operations". However, WWF-Australia said the Gulf of Mexico spill demonstrated that "drilling accidents can happen to even the biggest companies in the business" – particularly when carrying out deep-water drilling.

The group's conservation manager for Western Australia, Paul Gamblin, said only luck had prevented the Montara slick from reaching the pristine Kimberley coastline, more than 150 miles away. Ningaloo, he said, was one of the world's few remaining healthy reefs. "It's one of those places that is just humming with life and is quite amazing, so the fact that the oil and gas industry is getting closer and closer all the time is of great concern," he said. "This could be the beginning of a whole new push into areas that run right along the reef itself."

BP recently announced plans to carry out seismic exploration, with a view to deepwater drilling, in the Great Australian Bight, off the South Australian coast: another site exceptionally rich in marine life. Mr Gamblin said exploration should not be approved in such sensitive areas until a network of marine parks had been established, which was one of the government's election promises.

Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Sport
Peter Moores was criticised for failing to handle top players when he last led the England team
sportFive years after being sacked from the job, Peter Moores to be named a cricket coach
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit