A $35 billion liquefied natural gas development at James Price Point was yesterday recommended for approval by the West Australian Environmental Protection Authority.
The responsibility to assess the environmental impacts of developing a gas hub at the site 60 kilometres north of Broome fell to the sole discretion of the EPA Chairman Dr Paul Vogel. The remaining four EPA board members were ruled out of the process due to conflicts of interest.
Vogel said that the assessment had been the largest and most multi-faceted ever conducted in the EPA’s 40 year history.
"The level of complexity in assessing this proposal was unprecedented," said Vogel, who recommended the project with a set of 29 conditions and offsets "to ensure the EPA’s environmental objectives are met".
The LNG development proposed for James Price Point is led by Woodside in joint venture partnership with Shell, BP, Chevron and BHP.
Unable to assist in delivering the EPA’s recommendation were board members Dr Chris Whitaker and Denis Glennon who are Woodside shareholders, and Dr Rod Lukatelich who works as an environmental manager for BP, one of the project’s joint venture partners.
All three members were involved in earlier parts of the assessment process, including meeting with the Broome Shire Council, the Kimberley Land Council, traditional owners and environmental groups during a visit to the proposed LNG precinct site last November.
The other EPA board member is Elizabeth Carr. New to the EPA and a former employee of the project’s proponent, the Department of State Development, Carr was never involved in the project’s assessment.
These revelations about the decision makers at the EPA have added to the environmental and cultural concerns many locals, traditional owners, and conservation groups hold regarding the controversial gas hub proposal.
The Greens are condemning the EPA’s recommendation. WA Greens Senator Rachel Siewert described the EPA decision as a "new low point for WA" and called on the federal government to reject the approval.
The Broome Community No Gas Campaign reiterated its opposition to the proposal and said the EPA’s ruling lacks scientific rigour.
"The Broome community has no faith in the veracity of this report. The EPA’s own rules state that 3 board members are required for a quorum, and this is the largest decision in their history, yet it has been made by just one man," said spokesperson Nik Wevers.
But Vogel described the EPA’s assessment process as "thorough" and said that wide-ranging consultation took place with various stakeholders including community members and scientific experts.
The EPA’s recommendation came after WA Environment Minister Bill Marmion received advice from the State Solicitor’s Office allowing Vogel to act alone in providing advice to the state government about the potential environmental impacts of the project.
Marmion said: "I believe the EPA has taken the appropriate course of action and have confidence in the integrity of the EPA chairman Dr Paul Vogel, to provide me with informed advice and recommendations on the project."
The EPA’s recommendation is the result of almost four years of work considering the feasibility of developing a gas hub at James Price Point in the Kimberley region of West Australia.
In 2007 the WA government established the Northern Development Taskforce to develop a framework (pdf) for development in the West Kimberley.
In 2008 the Taskforce identified a shortlist of four sites in the Kimberley to be considered as potential locations for LNG production facilities. Worley Parsons then conducted a site assessment of the four preferred locations in a report (pdf) prepared for the state government.
The EPA considered the four shortlisted sites in a 2008 report concluding that "the environmental impacts and risks of locating a precinct in the James Price Point area were likely to be manageable," a position supported by Premier Colin Barnett.
Barnett has long espoused hopes that the Kimberley would become a new region for development in WA. In 2009 Barnett told Fairfax that James Price Point is "an unremarkable beach."
"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," Barnett said.
The report released yesterday details the EPA’s findings regarding the environmental suitability of James Price Point as a site for LNG development and admits that there will be impacts.
"The EPA acknowledges that the creation of any industrial undertaking, particularly one of this magnitude, will involve environmental impacts." the report said. "Based on the available data, the environmental impacts and risks of locating a precinct in the James Price Point area were likely to be manageable."
The EPA recommends reserves be put in place to protect species of flora and fauna listed as vulnerable including the Monsoon Vine Thicket and the Greater Bilby.
The report acknowledged the presence of BTEX chemical emitted during activities related to LNG development at James Price Point and recommended that air emissions be managed "to best practice levels."
Implementing best practice was also recommended as the way to minimise greenhouse gas emissions of future development at James Price Point.
The EPA noted that that various aspects of LNG development have the potential to adversely affect the whales, dolphins, dugongs, turtles and fish that are "important inhabitants" of the marine environment off James Price Point. But the report says that if Commonwealth guidelines and the conditions contained within the EPA recommendations are met, the impacts are unlikely to be significant.
But The Wilderness Society said they have little faith in the EPA’s recommendations being enacted if the LNG development goes ahead.
"The public can have no confidence in the Chairperson’s claim of "strict conditional approval", since neither the Department of State Development nor the EPA has the resources, political backing or (in the case of the department), the legal powers to enforce strict environmental conditions," said Wilderness Society WA State Coordinator Peter Robertson.
The EPA report is subject to public appeal until 30 July and the Greens said they anticipate a flood of submissions pointing out the flaws in the scientific data that they say the environmental assessment is based on.
Woodside welcomed the EPA recommendation and said it expects to make a final investment decision on the proposed development in the first half of 2013.
The proposal to produce LNG at James Price Point will be considered by both the state and federal governments before a final decision is made.
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