Huge Australian Oil Spill Raises Questions

An oil spill disaster that could rival the impact of the Exxon Valdez is playing out tonight off the coast of Australia. For 10 weeks, a crippled deep-water oil rig has been leaking millions of gallons into the ocean between Australia's northwest coast and the islands of Indonesia.

It is bringing to light the possible environmental impact when offshore drilling goes wrong, as CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports.

With explosive gas spewing into the air and thousands of gallons of oil pouring into the water each day the spill began claiming sea snakes, birds and dolphins.

The blowout is thought to have been caused by a fracture in a pipe 8,000 feet beneath the sea floor. Again and again over two months the Thailand-based company that owns the rig tried and failed to plug the well.

"We remain committed and resolved to achieve our goal," said Jose Martins, chief financial officer of the company, Pttep Oil. "That may require a few more attempts."

Just how much has spilled is uncertain. Environmental groups say satellite photos show its spread across more than 9,000 square miles and estimate some 9 million gallons have poured into the ocean - nearly as much as the 11 million gallons that escaped from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.

"There's no cleanup technology available on earth to clean up a spill that big," said Richard Charter of Defenders of Wildlife.

The oil company insists the spill is much smaller but refuses to give a number. Environmentalists monitoring the damage say flocks of sea birds, groups of whales, porpoises and sea turtles have been seen feeding near the oil. But the region is so large and so remote there is no count of wildlife killed or injured.

While the spill is far from American waters, it's come at an awkward time for those pushing more offshore drilling here under the slogan, "Drill, baby, drill."

Well, this is 'Drill, baby, oops,'" Charter said. "What we're seeing now and it's very tragic - when a blowout happens, we can't shut 'em off. These are forces of nature."

The rig off Australia was state of the art, just two years old. This week, just after the well was finally capped, the platform exploded and burned - bringing a spectacular end to the flow of oil but adding fuel to the worldwide debate over offshore drilling.
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