Gas plant pipedream a nightmare

Date of publication: 
12 February 2010

Another tick of approval on a $30 billion gas processing operation in the Kimberley has put Western Australia one step closer to Premier Colin Barnett’s stated aim of becoming the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas”.

But could it also prove to be one step back, as its critics claim, for the Kimberley’s standing as one of Australia’s last great frontiers?

In a decision announced on Tuesday, Woodside’s joint venture partners agreed to the oil and gas giant’s selection of James Price Point, about 60km north of Broome, as the site for a multi-user hub to process liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Browse Basin.

The agreement of the JV partners – BHP Billiton, Chevron, Shell and Japan Australia LNG – was accompanied by their commitment to a $1.25 billion works program incorporating final submissions for environmental approval.

Coming less than six months after licences were granted for the $43 billion Chevron-led LNG operation on Barrow Island, off WA’s Pilbara coast, the agreement adds to confidence that the state is on the threshold of another resources boom.

It also adds to the apprehension of environmentalists about the future of the Kimberley as a pristine wilderness and the seas off the Kimberley coast as a calving ground for humpback whales.

Should WA’s Environmental Protection Authority sign off on the joint venture’s application, the government approve it, and the project meet the requirements of the commonwealth’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett will have the last word on a go-ahead.

That process is in train, with the terms of reference for a strategic assessment and site selection criteria already approved by Mr Garrett.

There is no timeline on the minister’s final approval but the joint venture has announced a self-imposed mid-2012 deadline on its own investment decision.

Neither the federal nor WA governments would this week confirm reports that November this year is the preferred time for finalisation of the approvals.

Conservationists say the proposal will be the next big test for Mr Garrett, who they claim has already jeopardised Barrow Island’s status as an A class nature reserve by giving the nod to the Chevron joint venture in September last year.

But depending on the timing of a federal election, Mr Garrett may not be the minister in the hot seat when decision time comes around.

Whoever occupies it, all the signs point to it being a very hot seat indeed.

Opposition to the James Price Point project is formidable.

Three conservation groups – The Wilderness Society, WA Conservation Council and Environs Kimberley – have banded together in what they say is a last-ditch stand to save a humpback whale breeding ground.

They also claim the establishment of a deepwater port at James Price Point would require blasting of coral reefs and the clearing of 25 sq km of land, devastating remnant rainforests that are “a threatened ecological community” under WA laws.

The groups say because no environmental approvals have been granted, the joint venture faces the possibility of a legal challenge based on commonwealth laws which stipulate that it must demonstrate how a gas plant in the Kimberley would have less impact than alternatives in the Pilbara.

Says Wilderness Society spokesman Josh Coates: “The process to date has failed to adequately assess gas processing options outside of the environmentally sensitive Kimberley coast despite this being a requirement under the joint state and commonwealth agreement regarding the LNG hub strategic assessment.”

On Tuesday, the same day the Woodside joint venture partners approved James Price Point as the site for the hub, former Federal Court judge Murray Wilcox warned of a legal challenge to the compensation deal reached with traditional land owners.

Serendipitously, as opponents of the gas plant reacted to the joint venture’s decision, Mr Wilcox launched a booklet entitled Kimberley At The Crossroads: the Case against the Gas Plant.

It paints the development as the thin end of the wedge for preservation of one of Australia’s last great wilderness frontiers and the region’s indigenous culture.

While launching the booklet, he foreshadowed a legal challenge against the “farcical” process by which the Kimberley Land Council (KLC), representing the traditional owners, agreed to the deal.

The traditional owners themselves have divided into groups for and against the KLC’s support for the development.

Along with supporters of Mr Wilcox, led by Goolarabooloo Aboriginal elder Joseph Roe, proponents of the gas plant turned up to protest at Mr Wilcox’s Sydney book launch on Wednesday.

They rallied against what they see as the former judge’s interference in potential improvements to the economic and social plight of Kimberley communities.

KLC executive director Wayne Bergman says he is “100 per cent confident” about the council’s own process of consultation and is disappointed Mr Wilcox did not speak to his group before reaching his “outrageous conclusions”.

Mr Bergman says “the overwhelming majority” of the Jabir Jabir custodians of the James Price Point area want the gas plant to go ahead.

He also said he was seeking legal advice on whether Mr Wilcox may have breached WA’s Aboriginal Heritage Act by publishing photos of sacred sites in his booklet.

And he said Mr Wilcox may have defamed him and the KLC with “inflammatory public statements” he has made since the book launch.

“He has made personal attacks on my integrity. I’m just disappointed that an ex-judge would play the person and the organisation rather than state the facts,” Mr Bergman told AAP on Thursday.

Mr Roe, whose Goolarabooloo community are also claimants to the area around James Price Point, said Mr Bergman was wrong to claim that a majority of the Jabir Jabir group supported the development.

He vowed to stop the plant, blaming Mr Bergman for what he claims is bitter feuding over the issue within Kimberley communities.

“My own family members are drawing lines between me and the gas plant and I blame the man who is supposed to be representing me,” he told AAP on Thursday.

“This is not a bluff. I’m talking about my country, my culture, my heritage, my spirituality.

“Generations before my grandfather had the body of knowledge to carry on the culture.

“I was told to look after it in the best way I can and I will never let that (gas plant) happen.”

Mr Roe admitted that he had supported at least one other proposed site for the Browse Basin hub.

“They had left us out of the process. That submission was to get us into the process,” he said.

“I had to do something very quickly and very smart.

“We had a good look and pointed out a site that didn’t contain as many hunting and camping grounds and burial sites as the others, and would have done much less damage to country and had much less impact on Aboriginal heritage.”

Woodside chief executive Don Voelte admits James Price Point is not “the perfect site”, but says it’s “90-95 per cent there”.

“I won’t say it (James Price Point) is the one that won by default that had the least problems, but I’d rather look at it as the one that satisfied most of the issues,” he told reporters in Perth on Wednesday.

James Price Point is a focus of interest outside of Woodside and its JV partners.

The WA government wants to use the development as a lever in its ongoing negotiations with Japanese company Inpex, which has already announced Darwin as its preferred site for a multi-billion dollar LNG plant.