PERTH, Australia, November 3, 2009 (ENS) – PTTEP Australasia today confirmed it has killed a leaking oil well and stopped the main fire at the Montara well head platform and surrounding the West Atlas drilling rig in the Timor Sea off Australia’s north west Kimberley coast. Now the focus turns to investigating the cause of the leak and fire and assessing the damages to the ecosystem and what it will take to clean up the mess.

Well control experts onboard the nearby West Triton rig pumped some 3,400 barrels of heavy mud plus 1,000 barrels of brine down the relief well which had successfully intercepted the leaking well on Sunday morning.

The operation to pump the heavy mud began at 14:40 local time. The main fire at the well head platform was reported out about an hour later.

PTTEP Australasia Director and Chief Financial Officer José Martins said the company’s priority had always been to kill the leaking well and subsequently stop the fire in the safest and quickest manner.

“We are relieved and thankful that we have killed the well and stopped the main fire. We still have a lot more work to do and our priority is now to determine the best method of plugging the H1 well bore,” Martins said.

On August 21, the Montara wellhead platform drill rig owned by the publicly traded Thai company PTTEP Australasia suffered a well head accident, resulting in an uncontrolled discharge of oil and gas that continued unchecked until today.

The oil spread through an area known to conservationists as a marine life super-highway, and now covers tens of thousands of square kilometers of turtle, whale, dolphin and fish habitat. “Satellite images tell a shocking story of the spread of over three million liters of oil through this pristine environment,” says the Wilderness Society.

Estimates from satellite imagery indicate that the slick has spread over 50,000 square kilometers of ocean. The cost of cleanup has been estimated at over A$5.3 billion.

Now that the fire is out, a safety case revision will be presented to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority to reboard the Montara well head platform to assess the level of damage and to plan for the next phases of the operation.

“We do not underestimate the significantly increased technical complexity, logistical challenges and hazards of the work now required in the wake of the damage caused by the fire to the well head platform and the West Atlas rig,” said Martins.

The well will be monitored for the next 24 to 48 hours to ensure that it remains stable. Martins said the company may spray the well head platform with seawater to help cool it before any re-boarding attempt is made.

Once safety criteria have been satisfied, specialist crew from international oil and gas well control engineers ALERT Well Control will reboard the platform to assess the damage and determine how best to plug the H1 well.

This operation is more difficult now since the cantilever portion of the West Atlas rig buckled during the fire and has come to rest on top of the well head platform, Martins said.

Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson said tonight that stopping the fire on the West Atlas and killing the leaking Montara well is a relief to all involved and to the Australian community.

“Although the well is now under control and the situation is stable, there is still a lot of work to be done to permanently plug the well and make the Montara wellhead facilities and the West Atlas drilling rig safe,” Ferguson said.

“The fire has made these activities more complex and technically challenging, and introduced new hazards that need to be appropriately managed,” he said

Ferguson said he will direct his department staff, Geoscience Australia and the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority to put all of their efforts into assessing the safety case, operations and environment plans for the remaining tasks so they can be completed safely and as soon as possible.

Martins thanked more than 300 personnel which the company has had deployed offshore in the Timor Sea, at Trustcott air base in Western Australia’s far north Kimberley, in Darwin during the operation, plus the team in PTTEP’s Perth office, saying that they “worked tirelessly to bring the leaking well and the fire under control.”

“I acknowledge the enormous efforts of all those involved in responding to this incident,” Ferguson said. “They have been under huge pressure, but have stayed focused and safe until the job was done, despite a number of setbacks. It has been dangerous, long and exhausting work, and I particularly thank the families of those involved for their patience and understanding.”

Ferguson said he will establish a Commission of Inquiry into the incident and will announce its Commissioner and terms of reference before the end of this week.

Martins said the company will fully cooperate with the federal government inquiry.

Minister Ferguson said, “I welcome PTTEP’s commitment to cooperate with the inquiry. It is vital that we understand what caused this incident, that we learn from it, and that we put in place any measures that would help prevent such an incident occurring in the future.”

The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts is responsible for ensuring the implementation of a plan of action to help any wildlife that might be affected by the Montara oil spill in Commonwealth waters and to respond to any possible impacts in Commonwealth marine reserves in the region.

A long-term scientific environmental monitoring program has been agreed between the Australian Government and PTTEP Australasia.

Martins said PTTEP is committed to “fully funding the spill clean up and environmental monitoring programs being undertaken by the lead federal government agencies.”

“We will continue to work closely with AMSA [Australian Maritime Safety Authority] to assist in the oil spill clean-up operations and with DEWHA [Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts] in continuing to roll out what is likely to be the largest industry environmental monitoring program ever seen in Australia.

WDCS, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, today applauded the successful capping of the West Atlas oil leak but warned that the ecological impact of millions of liters of oil spilled into the tropical waters is likely to persist for years.

“Capping the oil spill is good news, but the damage is done,” said Dr. Mike Bossley, WDCS Australasia’s managing director.

“These impacts will include direct health consequences for whales and dolphins which were directly affected by the oil via inhaling its vapor or ingesting the oil itself, as well as more subtle impacts on the ecosystem which may ultimately affect cetacean prey species,” Bossley said.

After 10 weeks of leaking oil and gas, the government’s Rapid Assessment of the Impacts of the Montara Oil Leak on Birds, Cetaceans and Marine Reptiles identified at least four species of cetaceans (462 individuals), 23 species of birds (2,801 individuals), two species of turtles (25 individuals) and four species of sea snakes (62 individuals) during a five day survey.

As migratory species continue to move into the region in the coming months the oil slick may have an increasing impact, Bossley said.

Conservationists are still very concerned about the commitment of both the Australian government and the industry and seek clarification on the length of time monitoring will continue.

“The Monitoring Plan in discussion is silent on the duration of commitment the government has secured from industry,” said Bossley. “For all we can determine, they may monitor for a year and then walk away. A renegotiated plan must extend monitoring for at least 10 years.”

“We still don’t see the commitment we expect from the Australian government,” Bossley said. “If they were serious about mitigating the threats of oil spills they would immediately freeze all new oil and gas exploration applications; develop much stronger conditions and controls over all oil and gas rig and shipping activities including contingency plans before approvals are given; and identify and fully protect all whale and dolphin critical habitats in a network of marine sanctuaries before any oil and gas acreage is released again.”

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