It’s the home of the rising staircase to the moon, a never-ending Cable beach, exquisite sunsets over turquoise waters and untouched wilderness in pindan earth. Now the Kimberley could also become Australia’s home to a liquid natural gas (LNG) export facility to rival Qatar.
The proposed site of James Price Point (JPP), 60km north of Broome, is pristine coast with Aboriginal and Paleolithic artifacts, recognised by scientists, conservationists and tourists the world over. Land is being cleared as Woodside and its partners BHP, Chevron, Shell, BP, Mitsubishi and Mitsui spend $1.2bn to assess building an LNG plant.
This is no small scale development. Woodside is hoping to ship 50 million tonnes of LNG per annum from its Browse deposit, off the Kimberley shore.
According to the Browse Liquefied Natural Gas Precinct – Strategic Assessment Report, the development will include a "30 square kilometre industrial site" at James Price Point and "50 square kilometre marine deadzone" with deep cut ocean dredging to deepen the shallow Kimberley seabed so that LNG tankers port. The Browse basin has an estimated 34.6 trillion cubic feet of gas and 600 million barrels of condensate, a light crude oil, enough to last at least 30 years, according to WA Department of State Development estimates.
In 2009 WA Premier Colin Barnett described the Kimberley as Australia’s new frontier. "Just as the Pilbara was critically important to the development of WA from the ’60s, over the next 50 years the Kimberley will play a similar role," he told the Fairfax newspapers.
But Protecting the Kimberley, a 2009 WA State Government Report, demonstrates both the area’s fragility and unspoiled nature.
"Only 3.7% of oceans were rated as ‘very low impact’ …restricted mainly to the high latitiude Arctic and Antarctic polar regions and notably Northern Australia including the Kimberley," the report found.
Martin Pritchard, Director of Broome based group Environs Kimberley, wants this statistic to remain unchanged.
"It’s appalling that the Premier has an agenda to develop the largest international gas processing project on coast in the top 4% of the least untouched marine environments," he told New Matilda.
On Monday, traditional land owners served papers on Woodside and the Broome Shire in the Supreme Court, alleging they haven’t got the necessary approvals to access James Price Point. Goolarabaloo man Richard Hunter is claiming the approval process was not followed correctly.
"That approval is invalid [because]the [Kimberley Joint Development Assessment Panel] hadn’t received a responsible authority report from the Shire of Broome," Environmental Defenders Office principal solicitor Josie Walker told New Matilda.
"We’re suing Broome for somebody else making a decision on their behalf."
If the Court rules in their favour, Woodside could be ordered to stop work immediately. The gas hub is also yet to receive environmental approval from the EPA and the Federal Minister for the Environment, but rulings are expected to be made by August.
If all the relevant authorities approve, the decision will be left to Woodside and its partners whether to go ahead with the project.
According to Pritchard, financial analysts have said it would be $10 billion cheaper to pipe the gas to Woodside’s operations in the Pilbara, but the plant is the first step in a broad industrial project for the Kimberley
"There are government plans that show the gas would support large scale industrialisation across the Kimberley including the potential to power an alumina refinery to process bauxite from the Mitchell Plateau, this would be disastrous for the globally important environment we have here and would ruin tourism in places like Broome," he says.
The North-West Shelf, a 28 year-old Woodside gas project in the Pilbara, is also owned by the same joint venture partners and accounts for 40 per cent of Australia’s oil and gas production.
Broome is the closest town to the proposed development. Normally a town of 15,000, it doubles in size to 30,000 during the tourist season. During JPP’s construction phase Woodside has said 6000 workers will be traveling to the site, or housed nearby in purpose built accommodation near the site. Another 2000 workers are expected to operate offshore.
Earlier this year Former Southern Cross adjunct associate professor Annie Holden told reporters the social impact assessments authored by the Kimberley Land Council and the WA Government had omitted significant risk factors. Holden argued that the workers would be predominantly transient single men, and the risk factors ommitted from the Government report included prostitution, sexually transmitted infections, drug trafficking and alcohol-related issues increasing.
The proximity of a large workforce will exacerbate local issues in Broome. Housing is already at a premium — the median price for a two bedroom house is $600,000 — and Broome’s health infrastructure is strained. Much like the Pilbara’s Karatha, Broome would need to grow fast to service JPP’s workforce or locals could be priced out of the market.
"I’ve lived here for 25 years, it’s my home and I just can’t bear the thought of such a radical change, and where will I go? There’s nowhere else in the world that’s like the Kimberley," says Nik Weavers, Spokesperson for the Broome Community No Gas Campaign.
"The challenge is getting people to understand the scale. It’s frightening. The majority of people don’t understand how big this will be."
Weavers says she doesn’t want to live in the Pilbara. She chose Broome and the Kimberley for its quiet lifestyle and beautiful untouched surrounds. If the development goes ahead she and many other locals say they’ll move. "I think they’ll be very angry," she said.
A recent Labor poll found 79 per cent of the Broome population are against the development, but according to Weaver a culture of silence is frustrating the Broome community. She says that over the years there have been no public meetings for the local community to ask questions or make comment.
Subsequently, locals have taken their fight to the streets and red dirt roads of the region, and the police response has been heavy handed.
Protest blockades on Manari Road, North of Broome, have met with an excessive police response of between 140 and 250 police officers (according to differing media reports), 55 of whom escorted Woodside to the site. Among the protesters were two elderly Broome women, known as the "guerrilla grannies", who locked themselves to a van to stop land clearing machinery.
The blockade has since dispersed, but about a dozen people remain camped at Walmadany a public rest camp on the Lurritjarri trail next to James Price Point.
The camp is run by Goolarabaloo Traditional Owner Phillip Roe, who resides there most of the time, and is shared with dedicated environmental activists, local Aboriginal people, and families. Campers monitor sacred sites, conduct biological surveys and counting whale numbers. Endangered bilbies have also been seen near the site.
"We’re not just dirty activists sitting around, we’re here to monitor drilling and operations as well," says camp resident Damien Hirfch.
"We’re not leaving here — no way. It’s a sacred place and we’ve got the watering hole. It’s the heart of the place and the heart of what they [Woodside] want to do. We don’t intend to leave at all," Hirfch says.
Hirfch says life at the camp has been nervewracking, with Woodside-hired private security shining spotlights on them as they sleep and driving past the camp throughout the night. He says that the security firms regularly film footage and ask names, which they offer to police. At the start of this week, the public camp was visited by four police who looked inside tents and campers effects, and asked people for names.
"We feel harassed, really harassed," says Weavers. She says police have been incommunicative and rude but despite the pressure, the Broome community will continue to fight the proposed development, and are ready to resume the road blockade if necessary.
"The Commonwealth need to show some leadership on the Kimberley because they know its greatest assets are the natural and cultural values of one of the last wilderness areas in the world," Pritchard says.
"But at this stage neither the State nor the Feds have a clear pathway for addressing socioeconomic issues without destroying the environment here. We desperately need some visionaries who will listen to people on the ground here."
The author contacted the Broome Visitor’s Centre, Kimberley Land Council and Australia’s North West for interviews, but was declined.
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