New Oil Spill Devastates Borneo Coastline

A state of emergency has been declared after a huge oil spill occurred near the port city of Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, Borneo. Five people have died and an 80km oil slick now covers much of the Balikpapan Bay as a cleanup operation begins to reduce the environmental damage that this has caused. But just how did something like this happen?

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The oil slick ignited killing 5 Indonesians

The Cause

Although originally denying it for five days, the state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina finally came forward accepting responsibility. It’s believed that a pipeline in Balikpapan Bay owned by Pertamina was hit as a coal ship dropped its anchor on the pipeline and subsequently dragged it approximately 100m, tearing the pipeline apart.

As oil spilt out of the pipeline, Pertamina continued to deny any responsibility for the spill instead insisting that it was marine oil released from ships visiting the port. However, as the slick grew in size, Pertamina was pressured to take responsibility and begin cleaning up the oil that had poured out of its pipeline. Pertamina has since been cited and sanctions have been placed on the oil and gas company and its refinery in Balikpapan. The lack of an early warning system and automated monitoring contributed to the amount of oil that was allowed to leak from the damaged pipeline and cause the extensive damage that it has.

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Oil washing up on a beach in Balikpapan Bay

The Indonesian Environment and Forestry industry have told Pertamina that they must take responsibility for cleaning up the oil and restoring the natural environment of Balikpapan Bay. The state-owned oil and gas company has set aside Rp785 Billion (US$57.3 million) for the cleanup and restoration of the region with over 5,000 community volunteers to help.

Impacts to East Kalimantan

The slow reaction from Pertamina and the Indonesian Government has meant that the environmental and health impacts have got worse as oil has continued to spread. The current size of the oil spill is estimated to cover more than 7,000 hectares of the bay with coastlines, mangrove forests and local communities left devastated.

Mangroves are common along the coastline of this region and it’s estimated that 240 hectares of vital and fragile mangrove forests have been affected by the oil spill. Mangroves are vitally important ecologically and are home to many protected species that are becoming increasingly endangered in a country that has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Mangroves also act as a natural barrier against sea level rise which, for a country like Indonesia, could be vital in the years to come.

The oil spill has not only led to the deaths of the fisherman that became trapped when the oil slick ignited but hundreds of species that can be found in that area of Kalimantan, many of which are protected, have died. The environmental cost of this spill will continue to increase long after the cleanup and restoration of the area with a number of knock-on effects for the region.

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Crude Oil is having major impacts on the local mangrove forests (Source: Greenpeace)

Our Addiction to Oil

This oil spill occurred just days before a report on BP’s plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight, off the south coast of Australia, argued that an oil spill would be a ‘welcome boost’ to the economy of local communities. This most recent oil spill has been regarded as the worst in Indonesia in the last 10 years. The fact that it is only regarded as the worst in the last 10 years is cause for concern and should be an instant call for tighter regulation and monitoring in Indonesia and around the world.

Our access to fossil fuels has allowed the development that much of the Western world has seen and many developing countries are starting to see. When we first began using them we were unaware of the impacts we were having on the environment in the name of development. Now we know and we’re doing very little about it. Fossil fuel companies are basically continuing as normal whilst making a few, relatively small investments in renewable technology. The tide is beginning to turn against them, however, as a number of lawsuits take shape in the USA against some of the country’s biggest fossil fuel businesses. Change must be made now, and not a moment later.

In the short term, the management and monitoring of oil and gas infrastructure should be much more strictly observed to ensure that companies are working as efficiently and safely as possible. The impacts of oil spills on the environment go well beyond the initial accident and attempt at restoration (it’s impossible to restore an environment impacted by an oil spill). As great as it would be to just turn if our dependence on oil it isn’t yet possible, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start making changes to a much more sustainable lifestyle.

Long term, we must quickly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels to the point where we no longer need it. Clean and renewable technology must be invested in and implemented in places all over the world to reduce the requirement of fossil fuels in our daily lives and in what we consume. Our demand for fossil fuels validates the industry argument of continual oil and gas drilling and production in areas that are increasingly difficult to tap and that are of much greater environmental importance.

  1. News like this is devastating. I agree that a shift to renewable energy is the best solution, but until that is possible, these companies need to see HUGE consequences when they do not take accountability or did not have the correct measures in place to prevent such a spill. Just as with renewable energy, we need companies create recyclable batteries, because the materials to make batteries are not infinite and can cause problems in the landfill.

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