Standing up for Canberra

Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollustion) Oils in the Antarctic Bill 2011

I am a very strong and proud supporter of the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Amendment (Oils in the Antarctic Area) Bill 2011. Although I may represent an electorate that is hundreds of kilometres from the ocean and thousands of kilometres from the Australian Antarctic Territory, I represent an electorate very concerned about ensuring that the Antarctic and its maritime environments are protected. I also share the concerns of other Canberrans.

I have a keen interest in the maritime environment, an interest that started many years ago when spending time with my father. My dad is a very keen snorkeler, skindiver and sailor. He is now aged over 70 and he is still out there hitting the waves. As a result, my sisters and I were brought up swimming from an early age and strongly appreciating the ocean—both its dangers and joys, its wealth of life and its fragility.

From a very young age, I have been extremely conscious of the need to protect Australia's marine environment. This need was made even clearer when I recently visited the Antarctic Division in Tasmanian as a member of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories. On this trip, I spoke both to scientists from the division and to some from the University of Tasmania. These scientists were undertaking some very interesting and important research into the krill of the Antarctic waters, which I understand has attracted great attention from overseas.

Krill are a vitally important part of the marine environment. They are the foundation of the marine food chain, and many species large and small directly depend on this vital food source for survival. Beyond this many, many more, including us, are indirectly linked to the survival of these tiny creatures. I know there are some in this place who do not listen to experts and scientists, who would rather deride their work and question their conclusions. I am not one of these people and I was convinced by the research at the University of Tasmania and the Antarctic Division and found it incredibly compelling.

My trip to Tasmania both underscored the need to protect our precious marine environment from all sorts of threats, including the potential of oil spills, and it settled in my mind the need for this parliament to take immediate action on climate change through a carbon price. I would like to congratulate the government on introducing this legislation, which will do much to ensure that the fragile Antarctic environment is better protected from impacts that shipping has on that very, very precious and fragile environment. Shipping in the Antarctic poses a significant threat to this area. As the minister said in his second reading speech:

Ships navigating in these waters face a number of risks including icebergs, sea ice and uncharted waters.

Further to this, the extreme isolation of these waters and the harshness of the environment make any attempt to mitigate the environmental damage incredibly costly, and it is incredibly difficult if not impossible to actually do. It should also be noted that the extreme environment of the Antarctic, and its particularly cold temperature, means that it takes a significantly longer period of time for any spill to dissipate, especially the heavier oil specific to this bill, which is carried by the ships mentioned in this bill.

Previously I have spoken about the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Amendment Bill 2011. In that speech I noted the effects of oil spillage in the maritime environment, especially the long-term effects of oil spillages. Oil in the marine environment can irritate the eyes of wildlife that encounter it. It also contaminates food sources, can damage or disrupt the fins of fish and clogs fur and feathers. We have all seen the dreadful images from Louisiana and elsewhere that underscore this point. Longer term exposure has other dire consequences, such as organ failure of these creatures. Even a small spill can have devastating impacts.

I have also spoken in the past about the 1976 oil tanker spill, when, after the tanker had unloaded its cargo, it sought to wash its tanks out with seawater. Although only an estimated five tonnes of oil were released, it had the effect of calming the waves and attracting a migrating flock of ducks. Some 60,000 ducks died as a result of this spill. While this is perhaps an isolated incident, it does serve to highlight the effects of oil spills. While they may be rare, the effects can never be truly predicted and are highly damaging. Research has suggested that some of the microbes that are so crucial to the breakdown of a spill in more temperate areas may not work in the Antarctic.

Well apart from the potential for oil spills in this vulnerable area, which may in fact be one of the last truly wild and untouched places on the earth, there is also the issue of the emissions of sulfur oxides into the atmosphere around the Antarctic. Sulfur oxides released through the combustion of fuels poses a significant environmental concern, not least of which is due to their key role in the formation of acid rain. There are a number of sources for the release of sulfur oxides into the atmosphere around the continent, including the presence of scientific missions and Antarctica's volcano Mount Erebus. However, the research I looked into shows that shipping to Antarctica is clearly the leading cause of emissions for this very damaging compound. A 2010 report by Graf et al showed this clearly. This is a problem, and it is growing, as there has been a significant increase in the number of scientific expeditions to the Antarctic.

But what is more concerning has been the explosion in Antarctic tourism. In fact, in 2004-05 some 65 per cent of shipping to the Antarctic was tourism related. This is a major concern of mine because, while it is beautiful and I do want people to go and see it, I do worry about heavy tourism there. As you know from my visit to the Antarctic Division, my concern is about the cruise ships that go there with thousands or so of people. Some of them get stranded and then rely on the Aurora Australis and other missions to get them out of there. I also worry about the impact in that area of a thousand tourists, even though they land on a very limited spot.

While tourism to the region— which I am not opposed to; I am just concerned about its being too heavy—started in the 1950s, it has grown almost exponentially. In the 2001-02 season, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators reported some 12,248 visitors. This has grown, to an estimated 46,000 visitors in 2007-08. Some 98 per cent of these tourists are ship borne. Many of these ships, which are based out of South America, use the heavy oils that this bill will eliminate. Many of these ships are not adequately equipped to deal with the harshness of this environment and lack the level of ice protection needed to operate in these areas, as I highlighted before. They then get stranded and the scientists who are down there on important missions have to go and save these people.

I understand why so many people want to see the Antarctic. It is one of the last great wilderness areas, but it is a wilderness that is diminishing. It is under threat from the impacts of climate change and the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is under threat from ocean acidification— caused by carbon dioxide, but it is also, sadly, under threat from the very people who wish to see this wilderness before it disappears. This legislation is important to ensure this unique environment is protected so that future generations can enjoy it and that scientists can benefit from it. I commend the bill to the chamber and commend the government for coming up with this bill.

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