Seismic testing to look for petroleum has begun in protected marine areas off the coast of Western Australia after permits were quietly granted by the Abbott government.
Fairfax Media revealed last week the government had issued the permits while it reviews 40 new marine reserves declared in 2012 under Labor.
The permits include areas off the WA coast from Geraldton and the Abrolhos Islands where no mining activity could have occurred if the government had not suspended the parks and called a review.
Oslo-based company Spectrum-Geo told Fairfax Media it completed round one of its seismic testing last month.
Environment groups say the tests should not have been permitted by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), overseen by Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, and are “proof of the creeping industrialisation of the most important areas of our oceans”.
Spectrum’s Asia Pacific commercial director, Jane Conder, said the company’s first phase of testing included areas of the Carnarvon Canyon Commonwealth Marine Reserve (CMR), which was declared a Habitat Protection Zone by Tony Burke in 2012.
If the government had not suspended the management plans for the new parks, that particular protection grading would have prevented mining exploration but allowed some fishing activity.
“Testing did overlap the proposed Carnarvon Canyon CMR, but predominantly for vessel turning,” Ms Conder said.
The company’s environment plan says phase one of the tests was also set to cover a sanctuary area near the Gascoyne basin off the north-west coast of WA that would have had the highest level of protection as a so-called Marine National Park Zone.
But the company did not confirm these tests had taken place.
Spectrum is set to conduct a second round of testing in coming months, and Ms Conder said the company was approved to test in both Marine National Park Zones and Habitat Protection Zones in WA waters.
She said the surveys had been designed in “strict compliance” with environmental laws, although the company’s own environmental plan acknowledges it is able to conduct exploration because the government has suspended the protected areas.
Environment group Pew says the areas covered by three sanctuaries near the Abrolhos Islands are important migratory habitat for humpback whales, blue whales, sea lions, and breeding habitat for the western rock lobster.
Director of oceans Michelle Grady said the Carnarvon Canyon region was habitat for a range of sea bed plants and animals.
“This was never intended for that area,” she said.
“If the seismic tests prove successful then the next step will be exploratory drilling.”
She said seismic testing caused stress and disorientation for marine life and could lead to physical injury for endangered species.