Last update:

Transboundary Montara Oil Spill, Australia

The Montara Oil Spill in Timor Sea highlighted the controversies of fossil fuel extration and legislative weaknesses in Australia dealing with transboundary issues. Indonesian seaweed farmers embark on class action law suit to claim for damages.


At approximately 5.30 a.m. Australian Western Standard Time (AWST) (7.30 a.m. Australian Eastern Standard Time [AEST]) on Friday 21 August 2009, the Montara Wellhead Platform located 140 nautical miles (approximately 260 kilometres) offshore from the northwest Australian coast, had an uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons from one of the platform wells through its West Atlas oil rig. Consequently oil escaped to the surface and gaseous hydrocarbons escaped into the atmosphere.  [10]        The Montara oil and gas field is located in the northern territory in the concession block AC/RL3 650km west of Darwin in the Timor Sea, off northern Australia.   Montara has recoverable reserves of 24 million barrels and is expected to produce 35,000bopd of light, low-sulphur crude.  The field is located in about 80m of water and has a 10m oil column and a 25m gas column. Montara has four oil-producing wells, including a gas re-injection well and its production life is estimated to be 12 years. Montara was first discovered in March 1988 by BHP Billiton. Australian oil project developer Coogee Resources took over as the operator of the field in September 2003. In December 2008, PTT Exploration & Production, a Thailand-based state-owned petroleum and natural gas explorer, acquired Coogee for $170m. The company was renamed as PTTEP Australasia (PTTEP AA).   The deal gave PTTEP 100% control over the Montara development project, which includes Montara, Skua, Swift and Swallow fields. A total of ten wells, nine oil producers and one gas injection well are part of the Montara development project. [14] The spill continued until 3 November 2009, when the well was capped by a relief well.  In total, approximately 64 000 litres of oil per day leaked from the well from 21 August 2009 until 3 November 2009, a total of 106 days.   In total, approximately 6.7 million litres of oil leaked from the well, enough to fill nearly 3 Olympic-size swimming pools.  [11]  The Montara oil spill is the largest offshore spill in Australian history. To control the spill, The clean-up was apparently no less dangerous, with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) applying more than 184,000 litres of dispersants on the oil on sea surface.  Some of these dispersants are known to be toxic and carcinogenic to human life.  Two of the dispersants –Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527A–have since been found by scientists to amplify the toxicity of oil 52 times.  Only one of those dispersants is approved for use in Australian waters. Since the spill, communities in the Indonesian province closest to Australia, East Nusa Tenggara, have continued to protest that damage has been caused to their communities and economy.

See more
Basic Data
Name of conflict:Transboundary Montara Oil Spill, Australia
State or province:Australian Northern Territory and Territory of Ashmore and Cartier Islands; Indonesian Nusa Tenggara region and province of West Timor
Location of conflict:Australian water of the Timor Sea affecting neigbouring Indonesian island of West Timor (Island of Rote especially) and possibly western part of democratic republic of Timor Leste [2]
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas refining
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Natural Gas
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The Montara project comprises:

See more
Project area:At least 360,000. Actual area much larger but data are incomplete for estimation [6 to9]
Level of Investment for the conflictive project700,000,000 [17]
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:At least 15,000 seaweed farmers (there are likely to be others affected but not included in the law suit or yet to be identified) [18]
Start of the conflict:21/08/2009
Company names or state enterprises:PTTEP Australasia (Ashmore Cartier) Pty Ltd (PTTEP Australasia) from Australia - At the time of the accident, PTTEP Australasia was the sole owner of the oil field that caused the adverse impact
PTT Public Company Limited (PTT) from Thailand - Parent company of PTTEP Australasia which owns the oil rig in Timor Sea that has blown up and caused the oil spill
Relevant government actors:Northern Territory Department of Resources
Federal Ministry of Resources and Energy
Federal Minister for the Environment
The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (now known as the Department of the Environment)
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority
Australian Customs;
Australian Navy;
Queensland’s Department of Environment and Resource Management agency (DERM)
Western Australia’s Department of Environment and Conservation
Great Barrier Marine Park Authorities (GBRMPA)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) [19]
West Timor CARE Foundation [20]
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires, Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Oil spills, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Genetic contamination, Global warming, Soil contamination
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Potential: Occupational disease and accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Other socio-economic impacts
Potential: Specific impacts on women
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Court decision (undecided)
Application of existing regulations
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The Government partnered with the company carried out limited range of monitoring exercises and played down the severity and extent of the hazards and impacts from the oil spill. The company was fined $510million and has resumed operation with minimal of disruption. [2] [19]
There has not been an independent assessment of damages and harms caused beyond that conducted by the Australian Government jointly with the company responsible. The full extent of the damages and impact have yet to be uncovered to date, as a result. [2] [3]
Within the spill region the Ashmore and Cartier
Marine Reserves and their resident wildlife populations were threatened. Ashmore Reserve is recognised both nationally within Australia and internationally as a significant wildlife habitat for a range of wildlife species. Wildlife to these marine reserves includes tens of thousands of seabirds and waders, sea snakes, marine turtles, dugong with migrating cetaceans also using the area. These Marine Reserves are located about 300 nautical miles from the nearest mainland population centre and about 120 nautical miles from the Australian coastline. The response operation that ensued
was Australia’s first offshore oiled
wildlife response. It highlighted the lack of preparedness and the complexity involved in such wildlife rescue operations. While lessons learnt have been written up it remains to be seen if adequate resources have been set aside in times of emergency. [3] [4]
A review was conducted on the Offshore Petroleum and Marine Environment Legislation, which concluded in June 2012. The 2006 legislation was amended in several sub-sections. When the suggested amendments come into force, the two authorities established under the new Act, namely National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA
) and the National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator (NOPTA), will have stronger powers of monitoring and investigation to ensure compliance with the Act and the Environment Plans and Well Operations Management Plans of titleholders. The effectiveness of this new monitoring regime lies on the capacity and resources available. However, the issue of liability for damage suffered by third parties needs to be considered. Should an adverse incident occur, then it is unlikely under the existing law that any parties suffering economic loss that is not consequent upon damage to property will be able to recover damages. [20]
Affected communities in neighbouring Indonesia have allegedly suffered damages and health problems. While the pollution has not reached populated area in Australia, remote communities in Indonesia have been severely affected. Australia did not take any measures to compensate for their losses. [23] [24].
In 2016, a class action has been lodged by a private Australian law firm, Maurice Blackburn at the Australian Federal Court on behalf of affected communities in Indonesia. Montara has since removed its blown-up West Atlas rig. [1] [2] [3] [10] [11] [21] [22]

In two judgments in March and October 2021, the justice ruled in favour of Indonesian seaweed farmers in the class action lodged by Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. The judgments recognized the damages caused by the oil on seaweed and its production, and that PTTEPAA breached the "duty of care" it owned towards seaweed farmers during the oil spill. Thus, Mr Daniel Sanda, a seaweed farmer who brought the action on behalf of around 15,000 other seaweed farmers, was awarded a total compensation of 416,289,624 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah). It will be determined at a further date how much compensation is owned to other farmers. [24] [25].
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Environmental Protection Act (Northern Territory and Commonwealth)
[click to view]

Legal framework related to the class action following the oil spill
[click to view]

Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act (OPGGSA - Commonwealth)
[click to view]

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

15. PTTEP website description of the Montara project
[click to view]

1. "The Montara Oil Spill Dispersant Response; Challenging the Paradigms" by Tan, Swee Haung, procceding of the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference
[click to view]

3. Montara Well Head Platform Spill: Australia's First Offshore Oiled Wildlife Response
[click to view]

2. After the Spill, Investigating Australia's Montara oil disaster in Indonesia by the Australian Lawyers Alliance
[click to view]

6. energyNT - 2010 Energy activities for the Northern Territory, Australia, Department of Resources, Minerals and Energy group
[click to view]

10. Australian Maritime Safety Authority Response to the Montara Wellhead Platform Incident, Report of the Incident Analysis Team, March 2010
[click to view]

5. Petroleum Tenements Map 15 of 18, National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrators, Australian Government
[click to view]

[click to view]

12. Australian Lawyers Alliance website on the Montara Oil Spill case
[click to view]

19. website of the Australian Lawyers Alliance on the Montara oil spill case
[click to view]

22. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) news coverage on the class action law suit of the Montara oil spill case
[click to view]

13. News article on the class action court case of the Montara oil spill disaster
[click to view]

7. Update from PTTEP Interests in the Timor Sea, SEAAOC, Darwin, 2014
[click to view]

17. Technical data on the Montara project by its contractor. Subsea IQ
[click to view]

20. Blog of the West Timor Care Foundation
[click to view]

8. Notification of Acquisition of Interest of Exploration Block AC/P36, Offshore Australia by INPEX CORPORATION (INPEX) June 2012
[click to view]

21. Final Government Response to the Commission of Inquiry of the Montara Oil Spill
[click to view]

16. Official Australian Government website description and information on the Montara oil spill and the various report links, including departmental roles and responses
[click to view]

18. News article on the class action law suit against Montara
[click to view]

24. News article "Papua and Montara oil spill raised with Julie Bishop in Jakarta talk"
[click to view]

14. Description of the Montara oil field in Timor Sea by OffShore Technology
[click to view]

23. News article "Indonesia calls on Australia to help with Montara oil spill aftermath"
[click to view]

9. Sandalford 3D Seismic Survey Environment Plan for AC/RL7, AC/P54, AC/RL4 and AC/RL5 titles of PTTEP Australasia located in the Timor Sea
[click to view]

[click to view]

[click to view]

[24] Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, Montara oil spill class action.
[click to view]

[25] Ryan Richard and Parry Ellen, 2021, The Montara Class Action Decision and Implications for Corporate Accountability for Australian Companies, Business and Human Rights Journal, 6, pp. 599-606.
[click to view]

Law firm Maurice Blackburn class action on behalf of Indonesian seaweed farmers affected by the Montara oil spill
[click to view]

Official Australian Government site on the Montara oil spill by the Department of Environment and Energy
[click to view]

Report of the Montara Royal Commission of Inquiry
[click to view]

Submission to the Royal Commission Inquiry on the Montara Oil Spill by West Timor CARE Foundation
[click to view]

Australian Lawyers Alliance report on the Montana oil spill
[click to view]

Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Biodiversity Survey of the Montara Field Oil Leak
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[click to view]

Other documents

Map showing the Montara fields The Montara fields consists of areas marked AC/P34; AC/P32 and AC/RL3. Blown up field is within area marked AC/RL3
[click to view]

Other comments:This case illustrated the complexity of transboundary liabilities and jurisdiction of a major oil spill. The company responsible is owned by the Thai government and its shareholders, being a listed state-owned company. The accident occured through its subsidiary within Australian maritime boundary but the impact is felt most seriously in a remote location in Indonesia where victims are least able to fend for themselves and to seek justice. It was only through the support of the Australian Lawyers Alliance that they were able to participate in a class action to claim losses and damages.
Meta information
Contributor:Lee Tan, Australian Environmental justice, [email protected] + [email protected]
Last update25/08/2022
Conflict ID:2735
Legal notice / Aviso legal
We use cookies for statistical purposes and to improve our services. By clicking "Accept cookies" you consent to place cookies when visiting the website. For more information, and to find out how to change the configuration of cookies, please read our cookie policy. Utilizamos cookies para realizar el análisis de la navegación de los usuarios y mejorar nuestros servicios. Al pulsar "Accept cookies" consiente dichas cookies. Puede obtener más información, o bien conocer cómo cambiar la configuración, pulsando en más información.