People power has prevented a massive environmental, social and economic disaster in the Kimberley – the proposed James Price Point gas processing plant. Corporate spin doctors and media peddle the notion that the decision by Woodside Energy to dump their onshore LNG project was an economic one, but the facts suggest otherwise.
According to Western Australian government statements from early 2008, final approval of the gas hub was due in 2010 – and construction was to have started shortly thereafter.
If that timetable had been met, construction of the project would have been well underway by now, even nearing completion, and factors such as the huge growth of US shale gas supplies and the blowout of domestic construction costs would have been utterly irrelevant.
The reason the project still does not have all its required government approvals three years later – and more than five years after the assessment process commenced in February 2008 – is straightforward.
The local community, Traditional Custodians, independent scientists, environmental groups and some politicians successfully exposed and challenged the serious flaws in the project’s assessment and approvals process. At the same time, they mounted a vigorous, creative and effective on-the-ground resistance at every stage of the project’s pre-approval works.
Together they demonstrated that the environmental surveys and studies conducted by the gas hub proponent, the WA Department of State Development (DSD), lacked scientific credibility.
Examples of discredited DSD studies include those that downplayed the significance of the National Heritage-listed dinosaur track fossils at James Price Point; studies that falsely claimed endangered bilbies did not live in the area; studies that falsely downplayed the importance of the area as a humpback whale migration and nursery area; studies that sought to minimise the extent and impact of dredging for the proposed port; and studies that misrepresented the significance of the James Price Point area as habitat for endangered sea turtles, sawfish and dugong.
Meanwhile, studies that were meant to be undertaken and done properly were not, especially in relation to the assessment of gas processing options outside the Kimberley and the project’s social impacts on Broome and surrounding communities.
In short the assessment process was exposed as a sham, culminating in the revelation that four of the five WA Environment Protection Authority (EPA) board members responsible for the assessment process had been conflicted out of the final decision on whether to recommend environmental approval. One lone member made the decision despite the quorum at EPA board meetings being three.
At the same time the mendacious formal assessment process was unravelling, the local community successfully and repeatedly blockaded Woodside’s pre-approval site investigation works, drawing national attention to the heavy-handed police and private security tactics of the WA government and Woodside and leading to multiple arrests.
While all this was going on, resolute Traditional Custodians mounted multiple and multi-faceted legal challenges in the Supreme Court and Federal Court against the government’s compulsory land acquisition, heritage assessment, native title and planning approval processes.
It is worth noting that since first threatening Traditional Owners with compulsory acquisition of their land at James Price Point in late 2008, WA Premier Colin Barnett (the legal proponent of the gas hub as the Minister for State Development) has tried and failed not once but twice to carry out his threat.
The first time, it was ruled unlawful in the WA Supreme Court; the second time it breached statutory procedural requirements. That particular process of securing title over the proposed gas hub land still has not been successfully concluded. No wonder the companies wanted out.
After five years of detailed involvement in government processes, direct action, public mobilisation, legal challenges and national and international media coverage, passionate campaigners for a different future for Broome and the Kimberley have successfully built a powerful movement of opposition to the project. Woodside and Shell knew what they were up against.
If they had tried to start the next stage of works at the site, involving disturbance of Aboriginal burial sites, there would have been even larger protests at a local, national and international level. This would have further damaged their corporate images.
So when the companies, politicians and media say it was costs that killed the project, what they mean is that the reputational and associated costs of a grounded, growing and effective community opposition were too great for them to contemplate.
From the outset the government was told the Kimberley coast, a natural wonder of the world, was the wrong place for such a project.
Much still remains unresolved, including Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke’s decision on whether to reject the WA Government’s James Price Point gas precinct currently before him for assessment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act – which he must surely do now that the foundation project has been pulled.
Finally, it remains to be seen whether WA Premier Colin Barnett will show the leadership required of him by renegotiating the Indigenous Benefits Package to guarantee positive outcomes for Kimberley communities regardless of where or how the Browse gas is eventually processed.
Given that even he is now talking up the benefits to WA from an alternative floating LNG project, there is absolutely nothing to prevent him delivering the same level of benefits to local communities that he, and Woodside, promised in relation to the James Price Point fiasco.