In its short existence National Heritage listing has failed to save cattle trampling the delicate plant life of Victoria’s Alpine National Park. It has not stopped Shell from drilling next to Ningaloo Reef — an area which was recently also added to the World Heritage list — nor has it stopped the destruction of 10,000-year-old rock art on the Burrup Peninsula in northern Western Australia.
And the final nail in the coffin will be if heritage listing the western Kimberley does not stop the construction of Australia’s largest single industrial development, Woodside’s proposed liquid natural gas processing plant at James Price Point north of Broome.
What will be next? Coal seam gas mining under the Opera House? A uranium mine at Uluru? Will any of our heritage-listed national icons be safe?
In announcing the Government’s review of Australia’s environmental laws this week, federal Environment Minister Tony Burke told the National Press Club crowd: "In the north west we have a heritage listing recommended to me by the Heritage Council for the Kimberley. The west Kimberley is one of the last areas of true wilderness in Australia … The heritage values that have been recommended to me for the west Kimberley are extraordinary."
But he also made this caveat: "A heritage listing is not a lock out. A heritage listing is not something that says no development. But a heritage listing is something that says any development, if it is to occur, must be mindful of these heritage values."
But it’s hard to see how a $50 billion gas plant can be anything but inconsistent with the environmental heritage values of the pristine Kimberley coast.
The James Price Point development would include 2500-hectare industrial precinct (the equivalent size of an area 5km by 5km), require a breakwater up to 7km long, and dredging of 21 million tonnes of seabed from an area of 50 square km. The development will wipe out 120 hectares of remnant rainforest and will suck up to 8 billion litres of fresh water a year from an already parched landscape. It would then pump 30 billion litres of effluent into the ocean.
The Kimberley coast is a nursery for the world’s largest population of humpback whales. It is also home to threatened species including snubfin dolphins, dugongs, saw sharks and six of the seven sea turtle species, including Australia’s own flatback turtle. James Price Point also has one of the world’s longest chains of dinosaur footprints of which University of Queensland palaeontologist Steven Salisbury has said, "There’s nothing like it in the world".
Under the current Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act, no development is allowed that is likely to have a significant impact on National Heritage values, but the Environment Minister has quite broad discretion to determine the threshold for "likely" and the definition of "significant impact".
Shell and other oil companies have been permitted to drill for oil less than 50km from the boundary of Ningaloo Reef, which was given World Heritage listing in January last year. Ostensibly, Minister Burke did not consider that an oil spill was a "likely" event or that such an oil spill would have a "significant impact" on the environmental heritage values of Australia’s largest fringing coral reef.
The Minister also has discretion to exclude places and values from the National Heritage list, notwithstanding the advice from the Australian Heritage Council, scientists and others. This has resulted in peculiar boundaries between environmentally sensitive areas and highly destructive mines. For example, the Kakadu National Park sits uncomfortably next door to the Ranger and Jabiluka uranium mines.
In 2007 a heritage listing was given to 99 per cent of the area proposed by the National Heritage Council for the Burrup Peninsula, leaving 1 per cent unprotected that just happened to coincide with the site for Woodside’s Pluto gas plant.
With such terrible precedents, the Environment Minister may think that building Australia’s biggest gas plant at James Price Point will not risk damaging the world-significant dinosaur footprints along the coast. Or that it will not destroy a pristine marine and terrestrial environment, or at the very least affect the heritage values.
Labor opposed the introduction of the current Heritage Listing regime introduced by the Howard government because it lacked an independent listing process. The Labor Party’s national platform still calls for the heritage listing process to be independent, yet the Government has hidden behind it in allowing totally inappropriate development in sensitive and significant areas. It’s time for the Government to show that a National Heritage listing carries some weight and is not merely a diversionary tactic as it approves monstrous industrial development on one of the world’s most pristine environments.
Tony Burke asked the National Press Club crowd: "Where are the equivalents today of what the Franklin, the Daintree and Kakadu were in the years that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were running the Government of Australia?"
Well, the answer is the Kimberley and the fight to protect it will be bigger than any of those giant environmental battles of the past.