Palau considering environmental impacts of oil exploration


ABC
Radio Australia

Updated June 16, 2010 08:11:25

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The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster is having repercussions in Palau where plans to drill test wells to see if there is any oil below Palau’s northern atoll island of Kayangel have been on the drawing board for some time.

Palau has won a worldwide reputation for environmental protection.

That was boosted by the announcement by Palau’s President, Johnson Toribiong, at the United Nations General Assembly last year that his country’s Exclusive Economic Zone would become the world’s first shark sanctuary.

However, at home there is considerable controversy over an agreement that President Toribiong has signed with a Texas based oil company giving it the right to drill for oil by May next year.

On his recent trip to Palau Australia Network’s Pacific Correspondent, Sean Dorney, took a look at both issues and his report begins with his journey to try to see some sharks.

Presenter: Sean Dorney
Speakers: Lin Sutherland, an Australian underwater documentary film maker; Johnson Toribiong, Palau’s President; Captain Ellender Ngirameketii, Chief of the Enforcement Division, Sam Scott from Sam’s Tours Member of Task Force developing legislation governing oil drilling and exploitation; Dermot Keane , Founder of the Palau Shark Sanctuary Foundation; Tommy Remengesau, Former Palau President and Senator

DORNEY: We’re on our way to one of the many spectacular diving sites in Palau’s Rock Islands south of the old capital of Koror. Our diving guide knows the best of them.

DIVING GUIDE: What we’re going to do guys is Virgin Blue Hole. There’s a hole right on top of the reef right over there. So what we’re going to do is go down , it looks like a chimney, like a Santa Claus going down into the chimney.
FX: [Splash]

DORNEY: Splashing into the water is Lin Sutherland, an Australian underwater documentary film maker who rates Palau as one of her favourite locations. She’s with a cameraman and they’re collecting material for a series for the Discovery Channel. Lin Sutherland says Palau has given the world a lead in declaring its waters a shark sanctuary.

SUTHERLAND: Sharks are a massive indicator of the health of an eco-system. So if you lose your sharks, which are your top predators of your eco-system you really are compromising the whole health of the whole environment.

DORNEY: Palau’s President, Johnson Toribiong.

TORIBIONG: It’s part of our tradition to preserve and conserve our natural resources.
So when we realised that the shark population is decreasing at an alarming rate, the leaders of Palau decided to enact a law to ban shark fishing. I then declared to the world at the United Nations General Assembly, September 2009, that Palau will be the first national sanctuary for sharks.

DORNEY: It was an announcement that delighted those in Palau’s tourism industry like Sam Scott whose company, Sam’s Tours, is celebrating its 20th anniversary and now has 12 boats taking tourists on diving and kayaking trips through Palau’s maze of islands.

SCOTT: When he returned back to Palau all 50 of my staff were at the airport applauding him as he came through the receiving area at the airport.

DORNEY: Declaring a shark sanctuary over an area as big as Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone is one thing. Getting foreign fishing fleets to respect it, quite another.

KEANE: When I first came here in ’95 as a tourist right next to where we’re sitting was a long line fishing base and a lot of, you know, foreign fishing vessels with shark fins hanging out of the rigging.

DORNEY: Dermot Keane is the Founder of the Palau Shark Sanctuary Foundation.

KEANE: If you talk to the guides who have been diving here for 10 to 15 years they will tell you for sure at the dive sites we no longer see the deeper water species that sometimes come closer into the reef. We no longer see those. The near shore or near reef species they’re still very, very plentiful but the deeper water species that are heavily hit by the long liners we certainly don’t see those so there is no question in my mind that there is a decline.

DORNEY: At Palau’s Marine Law Enforcement base there are four foreign fishing vessels tied up that were arrested earlier this year. Palau’s President Toribiong:

TORIBIONG: Surveillance is the most critical link in the implementation of our policy to conserve sharks. As you know we have only one patrol boat.
FX: [Patrol boat at sea] Course three-oh-one.

DORNEY: It’s a patrol boat supplied by Australia but now owned and operated by Palau’s Division of Marine Law Enforcement. Every time it goes out the Chief of the Enforcement Division, Captain Ellender Ngirameketii told me they expect to make an arrest. And he’s convinced one of the fishing boats they detained a few months ago was about to engage in shark finning.

NGIRAMEKETII: Yes, we’ve got so many boats with the shark finning. In fact the Indonesian vessel had a steel lead wire on board. And that’s an indication that they target sharks when they have the steel lead wire on board.

DORNEY: Dermot Keane, the founder of the Palau Shark Sanctuary Foundation says there needs to be a new approach to surveillance and he thinks new technology might be the answer.

KEANE: With one patrol boat and an EEZ that’s almost the size of France, you know, it’s a cat and mouse game that we cannot win using that particular strategy, patrol boats and, uh, we couldn’t get enough patrol boats to be effective in that so we have to look at other ways.

DORNEY: President Toribiong says he has one message for those consumers in Asia driving the shark finning industry.

TORIBIONG: The need to preserve sharks much outweighs the need to savour a bowl of shark fin soup.

DORNEY: While the shark sanctuary declaration has won plaudits, there is another development that some in Palau say raises questions over the President’s commitment to the environment. That’s the prospect of drilling for oil. And the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is creating apprehension. But the President says the proposal is not new.

TORIBIONG: That project has been going on for more than 20, maybe 30 years. The last remaining investor is a Texas based oil company known as PPEI, that’s Palau Pacific Energy Inc. And they’ve been exploring. They’ve done the satellite, they’ve done the seismic tests, they’ve done the magnetic field test and they claim there’s oil down there. But unless you drill you will never, never really know. And since they’ve been here for so many years and extending the deadlines for drilling, I imposed a deadline by agreement as May 2011. If they don’t drill then we have to start all over again.

DORNEY: The President’s political opponents, like the former President and now Senator Tommy Remengesau, challenge his right to allow the drilling.

REMENGESAU: I am one of those who believe that the contract is illegal to begin with. First of all because we have not set the framework from which we can enter into a contract. There is no legal authority for some of those things that are in the contract.

TORIBIONG: The World Bank gave a grant of about half a million dollars to retain experts to develop a legal framework and terms and conditions for the exploration and if feasible, the exploitation of that oil.

DORNEY: Sam Scott from Sam’s Tours has been appointed to a Task Force to develop the legislation governing oil drilling and exploitation.

SCOTT: Palau is a pristine, one of the few pristine environments left in the world and we need to do whatever we can to protect it. So, you know, I’ve been chosen by the Palau Chamber of Commerce to represent the Tourism Industry on this Task Force and you know, I’m doing everything I can to make sure that the environmental regulations and the environmental portions of the law are very precise and very protective.

DORNEY: Because what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico at the moment is a real worry.

SCOTT: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s a scary thing, you know. And it’s definitely an eye opener for the Oil and Gas Task Force to look at that and rethink about how, how strict do we want to be. You know, we definitely want a, you know, we want Palau to be, you know, investor friendly from an oil exploration standpoint but at the same time we also want to do everything we can to protect the environment.

DORNEY: Senator Remengesau believes the Gulf disaster is timely for Palau.

REMENGESAU: It’s like a blessing in disguise for us that the Gulf situation has occurred. So that it’s an education, it’s a lesson for us that this thing is. The risk is real. It can happen. And just a small portion of what has happened in the Gulf can wipe out Palau’s pristine marine environment.

DORNEY: The President admits that his brother who was one of those who convinced him to declare Palau a shark sanctuary actually works for the oil company.

TORIBIONG: My brother is a famous scuba diver. In fact he was installed to the International Hall of Fame for the world’s scuba divers in the Cayman Islands so they hired him as a diver. But he’s recovering from some illness but I guess he’s with the oil company.

DORNEY: The underwater documentary producer, Lin Sutherland, believes Palau has too much to lose.

SUTHERLAND: I know we need oil and I know that they’re getting quite desperate trying to search for oil but I really think they’ve got to realise that without healthy eco-systems around the world it doesn’t matter how much oil you’ve got because if you’re planet is not functioning properly then that’s your number one concern.

DORNEY: And Dermot Keane from the Shark Sanctuary Foundation is trying to stay neutral.

KEANE: You know, I’m kind of sitting on the fence on that. I’m not really sure, I don’t have the knowledge as to what’s the right thing or wrong thing to do. But with respect to the general ocean species and protection of Palau’s waters, the whole idea of exploration concerns me.

DORNEY: Given what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico Palau’s President seems to be having second thoughts.

TORIBIONG: It was a dilemma before but now given the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico it is now very, very critical for us to be very cautious and perhaps even to suspend exploration or even exploitation until we are very, very sure that it’s safe, that the technology to be used will be very good.

DORNEY: The Texas based oil company, Palau Pacific Energy Inc, still has that agreed right to drill for oil in Palau up until May next year.

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