"Exploration in the areas under offer, some of which are in frontier areas, is a step towards achieving our energy security objective," Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said Monday in announcing the government's 2010 Offshore Petroleum Exploration Acreage Release during the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Conference in Brisbane.
Noting that Australia has an "enviable history of world-class petroleum discoveries," Ferguson said the country would realize record levels of investment and thousands of jobs as more discoveries move from exploration to production.
Australia currently has 220 offshore exploration permits, 39 retention leases and 80 production licenses, with the offshore industry providing 90 percent of Australia's oil and gas production.
Ferguson noted that there have been calls from "some parts of the community" for a moratorium on acreage release and industry activities.
For Australians, the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a grim reminder of the Montara oil rig blowout and spill last August in the Timor Sea off Australia, which was not capped until November.
Admitting that the Montara incident has had an impact on the national psyche, Ferguson said it would "take a long time" to rebuild confidence in the industry.
"In my view, Australia has to learn the lessons of Montara and the Gulf of Mexico, and ensure firstly, that we have a world-class regulatory system in place and secondly, that we have competent and professional operators in the industry," he said.
He said Australia's approach must be to ensure its oil and gas exploration and production operations are the best and safest in the world.
"Shutting down the industry and putting the nation's energy security, jobs and the economy at risk does nothing towards achieving any of these goals," Ferguson said.
Ferguson said the Montara Commission of Inquiry would issue a report in June along with recommendations for government, industry and regulators to help lift the safety and environmental performance of the industry.
Environmentalists are particularly opposed to two leases 53 miles off the coast of the Margaret River in Western Australia's southwest.
The leases pose a risk to marine life -- up to 90 percent of which is considered unique -- in the region, also used by half of the world's whale and dolphin species, the Conservation Council says.
"Within days of the Louisiana Oil Spill President Obama had cancelled all new offshore drilling, but now after our own Montara oil spill we see new oil leases in proposed marine sanctuaries," said Tim Nicol, the council's marine coordinator.