UPDATE: Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has opened the way to oil and gas exploration off the south-west of WA in an area currently being considered for protection by Environment Minister Peter Garrett.
The area, known as the Mentelle Basin, covers more than 13,000 sqkm of ocean off Margaret River and was being assessed for inclusion in a marine sanctuary because of its unique qualities, pristine environment and rich biodiversity of marine life.
The decision has angered conservationists who say it pre-empts the outcome of the marine sanctuary assessment process and should have been put off until after the Montara Commission of Inquiry is finalised.
A coalition of conservation groups, including the Conservation Council of WA and the Pew Environment Group, said Mr Ferguson's decision placed unique marine life at risk less than 90km offshore from Margaret River.
Mr Ferguson said there had been calls for a moratorium on releasing new areas for exploration in the aftermath of a series of oil related disasters, including those in the Gulf of Mexico and the Montara disaster off the Kimberley coast, but "shutting down the industry" was not an option.
He said the Mentelle Basin offered one of the most promising areas for new oil discovery.
But conservation groups have condemned the Federal Government decision to allow oil and gas exploration off the coast of one of Australia’s best-known tourism and environmental regions. Margaret River is internationally renowned for its surfing, tourism and wine industries.
Michelle Grady from Pew Environment Group and Save Our Marine Life alliance said important feeding grounds would now be placed at risk of any oil spill or other pollution.
"The actions of the Federal Resources Minister stand in stark contrast to those of the President Obama, who put a freeze on all new oil and gas approvals off the United States within days of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill," Ms Grady said.
"The Minister has jumped the gun on critical protection of the marine environment."
Tim Nicol from Save Our Marine Life said less than one per cent of the south-west marine region has any protection in place, despite there being a higher level of unique marine life found there than on the Great Barrier Reef.
"A groundswell of community concern, including 2000 letters to the Federal Resources Minister, is growing in the local communities that may lose the opportunity of marine sanctuaries and gain instead the risk of oil spills," Dr Nicol said.
Dr Nicol said that over the past 18 months, 76 oil and gas approvals had been made in Australian waters while no marine reserves had been declared.
Almost 20 per cent of WA’s marine environment was already tied up in oil and gas leases, while less than one per cent was protected, he said.
World Wildlife Fund WA director Paul Gamblin said it beggared belief the Federal Government was opening new oil and gas leases while the Montara oil spill was still being investigated.
“We still don’t know exactly what went wrong,” Mr Gamblin said.
“To release all this new acreage post-Montara, and while there’s still a massive oil spill happening in the Gulf of Mexico, is premature.
“Until you know otherwise, you have to assume that could happen anywhere.”
Mr Gamblin said any oil spill in the southwest would not only devastate the environment, but destroy tourism, fishing and other local industry.
“The Margaret River region is a very special place,” he said.
“It has not only environmental values, but strong community values as well.
“This news will be of great concern to many people across WA and beyond.”
A spokesman for Mr Ferguson said the Margaret River coastal area would still be evaluated as a marine reserve by the Federal Environment Department, but within the framework of existing oil and gas leases.
He said there was no conflict between the two.
Last weekend, nearly 300 people voiced their concerns at the proposal to allow exploration in the Mentelle Basin at a protest meeting in Margaret River.