Permits that would allow industry to look for petroleum in marine sanctuaries have been quietly granted by the Abbott government while it reviews 40 freshly minted marine reserves.
The permits could lead to seismic testing in areas off the West Australian coast, where no mining exploration could have occurred if the government had not called a review.
The licence has been granted to Oslo-based company Spectrum-Geo, which wants to conduct seismic testing off the WA coast from Geraldton and the Abrolhos Islands.
The permit gives the company authority to conduct exploration other than drilling a well.
Environment group Pew says the area covers three sanctuaries near the Abrolhos Islands that are important migratory habitat for humpback whales, blue whales, sea lions, and breeding habitat for the western rock lobster.
The organisation says the granting of the permits is a sign the government intends to reduce the level of protection in new marine reserves that were declared by the previous Labor government in 2012.
“Whilst they’ve stopped the clock and stopped the parks from being operational, oil has been allowed to slip through the back door,” Pew’s director of oceans Michelle Grady said.
A government spokesman said new management plans and protection zones would determine what activity could take place once a review of Australia’s network of marine parks was completed.
A spokeswoman for Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said the granting of an exploration permit “does not of itself authorise exploration activities. Rather the permit grants to the holder the exclusive right to apply for permission to undertake exploration activities in the permit area.”
The government has been reviewing the protection levels in Australia’s marine parks, including 40 new reserves that were declared under Labor by Tony Burke.
It expects to receive the recommendations of the review mid year and will then develop new management plans for the reserves.
So-called sanctuary areas, or “no-take zones”, in the reserves offer the highest level of protection and forbid any mining activity.
Pew said a fourth sanctuary area near the Gascoyne basin off the north-west coast of WA could also be impacted by seismic testing, while a further 19 permits for exploration or testing had been granted in areas on the boundaries of sanctuaries in WA, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
“They’ve suspended protection but they’ve not suspended industrialisation of these very important areas,” Ms Grady said.
“As a result of the oil and gas industry coming over those sanctuaries, the very existence of those sanctuaries is seriously at risk.”
Ms Grady said seismic testing was a significant issue for marine life, particularly “sound-based” species such as whales and dolphins, and also fish.
She said it created stress, disorientation and could also cause physical injury to endangered species.
“It’s like sitting in your living room and having dynamite go off every 10 seconds for weeks at a time,” Ms Grady said.
Mr Macfarlane’s spokeswoman said companies wanting to explore for petroleum would have to comply with environmental laws.
“Petroleum exploration activities are subject to environmental assessment and reporting requirements set out in the legislation and regulations for the activities, including the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 (OPGGSA) and regulations,” she said.