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The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science has responsibility for resources policy matters for the Commonwealth Government, and for the legislation that regulates the environment, safety, and resource management of the offshore petroleum industry within Commonwealth waters[1]: the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 (OPGGS Act) and associated regulations.

The Australian Government Crisis Management Framework designates the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science as the lead Commonwealth agency for incidents involving an offshore petroleum facility in Commonwealth waters. The Minister with responsibility for resources is designated as the lead Commonwealth Minister.

Under the OPGGS, if there is an escape of petroleum in relation to a petroleum activity, the petroleum company involved (the titleholder) bears the responsibility for carrying out the operational response, including stopping and containing the spill, remediating any environmental damage and conducting environmental monitoring.

This approach is common for the global offshore oil and gas industry, but presents a unique situation within Australia, where emergency management processes are usually led by either state or territory governments, or operational agencies within the Commonwealth Government who take responsibility for emergency response and reporting. For offshore petroleum incidents under Commonwealth jurisdiction, the titleholder fills this role.

To ensure that the Commonwealth Government has a clearly articulated and agreed approach to respond to potential future offshore petroleum incidents, the Offshore Petroleum Incident Coordination Framework (the Framework) was developed, and was put in place in January 2015. The Framework sets out the roles and responsibilities of Commonwealth agencies and establishes the OPICC as a central point of coordination to be activated in the event of a significant offshore petroleum incident.

The 2015 National Plan[2] exercise, Exercise Westwind, provided the first opportunity to exercise the Framework and the OPICC. Exercise Westwind reinforced the value of a coordinated approach and showed that the concept of bringing key stakeholders together through the OPICC to facilitate interaction was sound, however there were areas for improvement. The Exercise Westwind Evaluation Report[3] identified three recommendations relating to the OPICC and the Framework:

  1. Review the purpose and functions of the Offshore Petroleum Incident Coordination Framework (OPICF), and the role and responsibilities of OPICC and OPICC Secretariat to ensure that the OPICF provides an effective framework for strategic Government leadership in emergency response.
  2. Ensure that the OPICF is supported by a formal learning and development and exercise program for OPICC members, and the OPICC Secretariat ensures an ongoing strategic response capability.
  3. Seek greater integration between OPICF and the Australian Government capabilities for crisis management, including linkages to crisis communication capabilities within the Australian Government Crisis Coordination Centre of the Attorney-General’s Department.

These recommendations reflected that the OPICC, as a committee, was newly established and was exercising its role for the first time. The exercise showed that there was a need for improved integration with other Commonwealth Government’s capabilities, and for greater preparation through learning and development.

Importantly, Exercise Westwind showed that the OPICC needed to take a leading role in driving the Commonwealth’s strategic response, rather than focusing only on coordination and information-sharing.

The department collaborated with stakeholders during 2016 and early 2017 to undertake a significant revision of the Framework and implement those recommendations. Key changes to the Framework included:

  • Bolstering the role of the OPICC to reflect the need for overt strategic leadership on the part of the Commonwealth Government in the event of an offshore petroleum incident.
  • Clarifying how the Framework and the OPICC integrate and operate within the whole-of-government crisis management approach through the AGCMF.
  • Bolstering the role of liaison officers and their role in facilitating communication between OPICC agencies, between different levels of government and with the petroleum titleholder.
  • Providing more detail on the management of cross-jurisdictional incidents to clarify the roles of the Commonwealth and State/NT Governments and the titleholder, and how these roles interface and work together.

This collaborative effort provided the opportunity to further improve and promote productive working relationships across government, and to more fully understand the roles that different agencies may play. Rather than distinctly separate responsibilities, this type of incident will require an approach of layered responsibilities, capabilities and expertise.

The revision of the Framework was supported by the department’s development of a communications strategy, improved set of internal processes, guidance, and organisational structures for use during an offshore petroleum incident, and resilience training for relevant departmental staff.

In accordance with the department’s commitment to exercise these arrangements every two years, the revised Framework was tested through Exercise Ningaloo Challenge.


[1] Commonwealth waters extend seaward of 3 nautical miles from the territorial sea baseline (also referred to as the low tide mark) to 200 nautical miles (the limit of Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone).