PNG: WHERE OILFIELDS ARE NATIONAL PARKS

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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (June 9, 2001 - The National/PINA Nius Online)---At first sight, there are obvious contradictions between an oilfield and a national park.

The image of the oilfield is rough and tough: of strong men and big machines plunging drilling-tools into the earth, of flowing mud and fiery tests, of roads, and pipes and processors.

The national park is pictured as a refuge, a sanctuary for wild creatures and endangered plants, free from noise and polluting activity, untouchable and secure for the long term.

An oilfield and a national park seem like two very different environmental zones, mutually exclusive.

So how is it that the oilfields operated by Chevron in Papua New Guinea have been described by one leading environmental scientist as the best kept national parks in the country?

Dr. Jared Diamond, an environmental scientist from the University of Southern California, USA, studies the impact of development on the natural environment, and has been visiting PNG for 35 years.

As a scientist and natural historian, he has been returning time and again to our tropical island home, fascinated by the rich diversity of species, and the relatively unspoiled environment.

He is aware that PNG is home to as many bird species as in all of North America, including unique birds of paradise and bowerbirds, in huge expanses of untouched tropical rainforest and lowland deltas, an undisturbed natural paradise unsurpassed on earth. Suddenly, in the forest, he encounters an oilfield.

Gas flares against the jungle green, roads and buildings disturb the seamless canopy.

But at the same time, something large moves, close to the edge of the oilfield.

It is a large bird, a cassowary, a big, shy creature of the dense forest seldom seen anywhere near the disturbances people create.

How can such an elusive bird survive within meters of the gas flame, and the noise of men and machines?

"I understand something that the bird, too, seems to know: that the regulations and practices governing the operation of the oilfield make it safer for wildlife here, than anywhere else in the open range of PNG, where it is endangered by pollution, people, dogs and other predators."

The fact is, Dr. Diamond concluded, that if you were an animal or a tree or a stream of water, you'd be better off living in one of the oilfield license areas controlled by Chevron, than almost anywhere else in the country. Strict rules prevent the hunting of any bird or animal in the oilfield license areas.

No wildlife or plant material is to be imported or removed.

No gardening disturbs the ground or muddies the rivers, and all wastes are scrupulously disposed of.

No oil or water from the oil wells comes in contact with the ground at the surface, and almost all surplus gas is re-injected under pressure, returning it to its underground source.

Roads are kept to an unobtrusive minimum, and access to remote areas is by permit only.

The result, according to Dr. Diamond, is that Chevron's oilfields are the best-kept national parks in the country.

Why would a resource developer like Chevron, whose brief from the government and people of PNG is to explore for oil in its licenses, bring it to the surface and export it, pay so much attention to preventing environmental disturbance?

Dr. Diamond, experienced in oilfield operations around the world, has three key names to partly explain Chevron's self-imposed adherence to the world's highest environmental standards: Bhopal, Exxon Valdez, and the North Sea oil rig.

The references are to the world's three most notorious industrial disasters, which cost their proprietors billions of dollars, and caused human and environmental catastrophe in their host nations.

No such damage is being risked in PNG, where Chevron puts safety, environmental protection and compliance with government regulations all ahead of its bottom line.

"We don't just protect the unique PNG environment because it makes good business sense to do so," said Chevron's PNG country manager, Keli Taureka. "As one of the world's largest international petroleum companies, we recognize that how we conduct our business can affect the communities in which we work.

"For that reason, we maintain some of the highest environmental standards on earth.

"In fact our efforts, alone and in partnership with others, have been officially recognized by countries including China, Australia, the United States and PNG.

"But we don't protect the environment in order to receive awards. We protect it for the future," Mr. Taureka said.

Dr Diamond said that what he had witnessed in the Kikori Basin, the huge tract of forest and watershed between Lake Kutubu and the Gulf of Papua, convinced him that oilfields and conservation can be good for each other.

A far greater danger is posed by the threat of loggers, following into oil-development areas, but not restrained by the same self-regulation or respect for the environment.

"Chevron and its joint venture partners have shown a great respect for the PNG environment, and they also need to protect the oil export pipeline, as well as the forest and its creatures, from the invasion of loggers.

"The oil industry is in fact contributing to the management of Papua New Guinea's premier integrated conservation area," Dr. Diamond said.

For additional reports from The National, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The National (Papua New Guinea).

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org  

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