Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Bill 2011

As someone with a keen interest in the marine environment, it gives me great pleasure to speak today on the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Amendment (Oil Transfers) Bill 2011. This bill seeks to implement amendments to annex 1 of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. The intention of the bill is to prevent spills occurring during ship-to-ship oil transfers between oil tankers. The new requirement under the bill will apply to oil tankers over 150 gross tonnes. These transfers most often occur when an oil tanker is too large to enter a port where there is a refinery, so it becomes necessary to transfer the oil to smaller ships.

Many will perhaps think it is odd that the member for Canberra would rise to speak on this legislation. After all, Canberra is not well known for its great beaches, its bustling working ports or its maritime tradition. As I said, I rise to speak on the bill because I am motivated by our national interest and because I believe that, whilst such transfers are rare in Australia, the potential damage that could result from a spill is enormous. My dad is a very keen snorkeller, skindiver and sailor, and as a result my sisters and I were brought up swimming from an early age, with a strong appreciation and respect for the ocean and a strong appreciation and respect for its dangers, beauty and wealth of life. So, from a very young age, I have been extremely conscious of the need to protect Australia's marine environment.

I was fortunate recently to visit the Australian Antarctic Division in Tasmania with the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories. During this trip, I spoke with scientists from the division as well as from the University of Tasmania. In my conversations with them I learned of the pressures being placed on the oceans of the world due to climate change. I learned how the protein value of krill populations could diminish from increased ocean acidity caused by a sudden and dramatic increase in the Earth's temperature due to climate change. The division is, thankfully, undertaking a comprehensive, unique and significant study of krill which has drawn interest from scientists all over the world. When we were there that day, there were scientists from Germany, the United States, from memory, and a range of other countries who were drawn to this very unique research taking place only in the division and only in Tasmania.

Krill are a vitally important part of the marine environment. They are the foundation of the marine food chain and many species, both large and small, directly depend on this vital food source for survival. Beyond this, many more, including us, are indirectly linked to the survival of these tiny creatures. My trip to Tasmania more than settled in my mind the need for this parliament to take immediate action on climate change through a carbon price. It also underscored the need to protect our precious marine environment from all sorts of threats, including potential oil spills in Australia.

The transportation of oil through sea lanes represents an important source of marine pollution. Whilst I have noted that such spills in Australia are rare, when they occur the potential environmental damage is enormous. Not only do they have an immediate and devastating impact in the short term but also research has shown that there is significant long-term damage from spills. Oil in the marine environment can irritate the eyes of the wildlife that encounter it. It also contaminates food sources, damages or disrupts the fins of fish and clogs fur and feathers. We have all seen those dreadful images from around the world of birds covered in oil from the range of disasters that have happened with oil spills. They really underscore this point.

Longer term exposure has other dire consequences for these creatures, such as organ failure. One of the substances contained in crude oil is a compound known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, or PAH. This compound is known to be mutagenic and carcinogenic, and whilst naturally occurring in certain circumstances it is significantly present in crude oil. PAH has been demonstrated to have highly toxic and long-term effects on the reproduction of fish, even at very low levels. But, well apart from the ecological cost of oil spillage, there is also the social and economic cost to those people who live near the site of spills. The recent events in the Gulf of Mexico highlight the effect on communities. Local anglers were prevented from fishing for months, sending many of them to the wall and decimating local economies. Tourism to the area all but ceased as once picturesque beaches were covered with a thick black coating of oil, and of course they will take many years to fully recover, if indeed they ever do.

There have been concerns about the health of the people who live in areas near these disasters, as well as the health of those who clean up the spills. In the Gulf of Mexico, there have been reports of skin and eye irritations. One academic study focused on the effects on the health of workers who were sent to clean up the 2003 spill from the Tasman Spirit tanker in Karachi. This study found an increase in respiratory problems in the people who cleaned up the spill. The report also found an increase in coughs, skin and eye irritations, sore throats and headaches as a result of people being close to the spill.

While these spills are perhaps larger than that contemplated by this legislation, even a minor incident can have devastating consequences. One such example occurred in 1976, when an oil tanker which had unloaded its cargo 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 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. That is why we need strong legislation to prevent such events from ever occurring.

Today's legislation seeks to do just that. It requires a ship-to-ship operation plan in all ships. This will ensure that tankers have appropriate equipment and qualified and trained onboard crew to undertake the operation. It will also ensure coastal states are notified of an operation proposed in their areas, which will allow them to move quickly should the worst happen. The bill is an example of world's best practice regulation and will bring Australia into line with international convention. Since 2007, the government has introduced legislation covering civil liability for bunker oil pollution damage. We have introduced the Protection of the Sea (Shipping Levy) Amendment Regulations and the Protection of the Sea (Oil Pollution Compensation Fund) Amendment Regulations. The Gillard government is deeply committed to protecting Australia's environment, and I commend the bill to the House.

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