The fire at the West Atlas rig broke out Sunday morning shortly after the company, PTTEP Australasia, intercepted the leaking oil well by drilling a relief well with a second rig, the West Triton.
Well kill operations were under way at the time, but were suspended due to safety concerns.
All 113 personnel aboard the West Triton rig and two work boats are safe and non-essential personnel have been safely evacuated, but Martins said that the company will not be in a position to try and kill the well until tomorrow morning.
The fire on the West Atlas rig, taken from the stern of a fire-fighting boat as it moved away after deluge operations. (Photo courtesy PTTEP Australasia)
"The best and safest way to stop the fire is to kill the well by pumping heavy mud into the leaking well from the West Triton rig," said PTTEP Director and Chief Financial Officer Jose Martins.
"The mixture of heavy mud is designed to backflow along the leaking well, stopping the flow of gas and oil at the surface of the H1 well, cutting off the fuel source for the fire at the well head platform," he said.
Well control experts are today mixing about 4,000 barrels of heavy density mud to pour down the relief well.
Eyewitness reports today indicate that there is little or no oil being released into the ocean from the Montara well head platform. Martins said this would indicate the oil and gas is burning off from the well head platform fire.
The company has been trying to stop the leak for more than 10 weeks and Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has ordered government agencies to do everything they can to assist.
Ferguson said the relief well has successfully intercepted the pipe of the leaking well.
"We all want the flow of oil and gas to be stopped as soon as possible, but the company must also stay focussed on achieving that safely," he said. "Therefore some operations can only be carried out in daylight hours and may have to be held over until tomorrow."
"I am seeking regular advice on this matter from PTTEP, my department, Geoscience Australia and NOPSA, as well as some of the best minds and most experienced hands in the industry," Ferguson said. "I am advised that the technical approach being taken and the resources being applied to control the well and stop the flow of oil and gas remains the safest and best available."
The minister said that when the crisis is over he will set up an independent inquiry that could lead to a change in the regulatory environment.
The oil leak started August 21 from the West Atlas rig in the Montara oil field 690 kilometers (428 miles) west of Darwin in the Northern Territory and 250 km (155 miles) northwest of Truscott in Western Australia.
The leak started from the mobile offshore drilling unit operated by Seadrill, which is under contract to PTTEP Australasia (Ashmore Cartier) Pty Ltd., a Thai publicly traded company.
"This spill has been a disaster from the outset," said Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert. "Coupled with the environmental impacts of the oil entering the ocean, the potentially hazardous effects of the dispersants being used and the threat to fisheries both here and in Indonesia, now we have a fire on our hands."
The West Atlas rig on the morning of November 1 before the relief well intercept, showing a gas, oil and water cloud, as has been visible since August 21. (Photo courtesy PTTEP Australasia)
"If slicks the size of the Timor Sea spill occurred off Melbourne or Sydney there would be outrage," said Chris Smyth of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
"Because the Timor Sea is a long way from our capital cities it's out of sight and out of mind. The size of the oil slick and its impacts are hard for people to comprehend," said Smyth. "But its remarkable marine life is seriously threatened by this oil slick."
"These oceans are home to dolphins, dugongs, whales and a treasure trove of other species which will be harmed by the accumulation of oil residue throughout the water column and on the sea bed." Smyth said. "Some measures to stop the leak have included the use of oil dispersal chemicals, which can do as much, if not more, harm to the environment than the oil itself."
The Australian Conservation Foundation is calling on the federal government to halt any expansion of the petroleum industry until the government's marine planning process is complete and Australia has established a world-class network of large marine sanctuaries.
"The Federal Energy and Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, needs to explain how companies like PTTEP are given the go-ahead to exploit such environmentally significant places as the Kimberley region," Smyth said.
"ACF is deeply concerned that companies like PTTEP are getting access to our oceans without sufficient public scrutiny or adequate safeguards," Smyth said.
Recent national polling by Essential Research shows that those surveyed strongly back such a move. Of those polled, 79 percent believe it is likely that the oil spill off the Kimberley coast in Western Australia will cause long-term damage to the natural environment, including marine life.
That figure is even higher in Western Australia, where 87 percent of those polled in that state also support the establishment of a network of large marine sanctuaries off the Kimberley coast to protect marine life from oil spills and other pollution.
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