Leading article: Oil exploration: not a price worth paying

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Have the world's oil companies learned nothing from the Deepwater Horizon spill which poured 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for three months last year? It seems not. The petroleum giant Shell has now applied to start exploration drilling just off Ningaloo Reef, one of Western Australia's most treasured marine-life nature reserves. It is famous for its whale sharks and one of the most bio-diverse coral reef systems in the planet's oceans.

The oil company, naturally, has proclaimed that it will apply for "all necessary environmental and safety approvals" before it begins drilling. And Australia claims that it has the best and safest offshore regulatory regime in the world. Despite that, it suffered its own massive 10-week-long underwater oil gush at Montara in the Timor Sea in 2009 – where an inquiry later found "major shortcomings" in management systems and a failure to observe "sensible oilfield practices".

Permission for the Ningaloo drilling has been granted by Australia's federal government even before it has published its final response to the Montara commission of inquiry. We all know why. Australia relies on primary extraction industries for much of its wealth. And the oil companies know that the massive potential payouts they may have to make, as BP did in the Gulf of Mexico, are dwarfed by the vast profits to be made from underwater drilling.

But easy oil is not the answer. Environmental disasters, and political crises like the one playing out in Libya, only remind us of the environmental reality that future world energy needs must be sought in renewable and sustainable sources. Green campaigners in Australia, and the local state government there, will now engage in a prolonged campaign to fight the Shell plan. But they should not have to. The big oil companies should be applying themselves to the search for scaled-up and viable energy solutions before climate change forces them upon us. Oil spills like Deepwater Horizon are not a price worth paying. They are an indication of a short-termist, morally bankrupt approach to supplying the energy the world needs.

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