BHP Billiton's plans to explore for oil reserves for its $US1.7 billion Pyrenees floating production vessel have been thrown into chaos, with the Federal Government mounting a rearguard action to protect the nearby Ningaloo Reef.
Despite the wider region already producing 60 per cent of the nation's oil, Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke yesterday rejected a bid by BHP's Pyrenees partner Apache Energy to look for petroleum in an area that takes in the very tip of the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Marine Park.
BHP and Apache have a separate application before Mr Burke's department to begin seismic tests for oil, just to the north of the rejected plot, for their 96,000 barrel-a-day Pyrenees joint venture.
Mr Burke said Apache's plan posed unacceptable risks inconsistent with the World Heritage organisation's position that exploration should not occur within protected areas.
"The proposed survey would have occurred in habitat identified as critical to the survival of the loggerhead turtle at a time when nesting females and hatchlings would be present," he said.
Apache said it was considering the decision. Despite the World Wildlife Fund describing the move as a "new era" and the most significant in living memory for blocking the designs of WA's oil and gas industry on sensitive marine areas , the sector's peak lobby group - the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association - would not comment. APPEA WA chief Stedman Ellis would also not comment.
However, WA Petroleum Minister Norman Moore said the surveys were highly unlikely to have an impact on the reef and he was concerned Mr Burke's decision had been made with politics in mind.
"I think this is part of a strategy that the Labor party is now adopting through Mr Burke to either to get the Greens to remain on side or to get Green voters to vote Labor," Mr Moore said. "You have to make decisions on these issues on their merits. Not on the politics."
WWF spokesperson Paul Gamblin said the decision was a brave one by Canberra to effectively add an exclusion zone around the area.
"The old days on industry being able to operate without public scrutiny in these areas are long gone," he said. "Today is probably the most significant formal example of changing from one era to another."
Mr Gamblin said the decision could lead to including environmental factors when awarding permits, so companies gained greater certainty at the outset, rather than wasting time on the application process. But the decision will test the nerves of firms in the region, including fledgling Cott Oil and Gas, which listed last year and has ties to Apache.