A Santos employee has sought protection from federal parliament to accuse the Australian oil and gas company of covering up the severity of an oil spill that killed dolphins off the northern Western Australian coast.
A statement by an anonymous whistleblower, tabled in federal parliament by the independent senator David Pocock, described witnessing a 25,000L spill of condensate – a light form of oil – near the Lowendal Islands in March last year.
The statement said dead dolphins, including a pup, were found “floating in dense sections of the oil spill” caused by a tear in a subsea hose that was connected to an oil tanker being loaded from Santos’ Varanus Island gas plant. Pocock also tabled photos showing oil in the water and dolphins floating belly-up in the sea with a tanker in the background.
The whistleblower, who said sea snakes “writhed in agony” during the spill, also said they were shocked a month later to read a public statement by Santos in WAtoday saying the spill had caused only “negligible” harm to the environment. The company later denied it was responsible for the dolphins’ death.
The whistleblower said the company’s environmental assessors did not arrive on the island until a week after the incident and could not have known the real scale of the impact.
“The tragedy of dolphin carcasses amid a kilometre-wide oil slick should be the story,” they said. “But it’s not. The story is Santos’s subsequent cover-up and total disregard for the values they say they hold dear, values such as accountability and integrity.”
The whistleblower said employees raised the company’s public comments internally, and senior Santos executives knew, or should have known, it was acting “contrary to its internal code of conduct and values and, possibly, the law”.
“It indicates a belief within Santos that they can operate to avoid public interest through misinformation, supported by a cosy relationship with regulators and government,” they said. “As an employee who saw very little real effort to be accountable or address the scale of emissions, I question now if their comfort to lie and misrepresent is present in their statements around future climate performance and emissions.
“Santos lied to us all. It is not a coincidence to find dead dolphins in the middle of an oil spill. I call on Santos to show some respect for the public, your employees and the dead bottlenose dolphins that I believe your operation killed.”
Santos was asked for its response to the statement.
A company spokesperson last year reportedly said three dead dolphins were seen near the spill on 20 March and it was reported to authorities. They said the dolphins would not have been killed by the spill as the bodies were seen only a couple of hours after it happened.
Pocock, who tabled the statement and photos of the spill during a Senate estimates exchange with the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (Nopsema), said he found the testimony and footage “very distressing”. He said it raised serious questions about the adequacy and effectiveness of regulatory systems supposed to protect marine ecosystems and “about the conduct of the parties involved”.
“I applaud the whistleblowers’ bravery in coming forward with this information and look forward to it being thoroughly investigated,” Pocock said.
Nopsema’s chief executive, Stuart Smith, said the spill had not happened in Commonwealth waters and was outside the agency’s jurisdiction. It occurred in Western Australian state waters.
He said he did not know the background but that “we wouldn’t consider a dead dolphin negligible harm.”
“If any spill [in Commonwealth waters] causes the death of a dolphin that would be of concern to us,” Smith said.
The Varanus Island gas plant, 75km off the coast, processes gas, oil and condensate from a network of offshore production platforms. The whistleblower statement described the Lowendal Islands as being “known for pristine white sand beaches, gorgeous blue turquoise water and abundant marine and bird life”.
Richard George, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said the statement, if true, suggested “shocking disregard for marine wildlife”.
“There must be a full investigation into these claims to determine how tens of thousands of litres of Santos’s oil spilled into the oceans, whether any dolphins died as a result and if Santos tried to cover it up,” he said.