Woodside’s decision to pull out of the $45 billion Browse project at James Price Point has been hailed by some as a win for the environment, and decried by others as an avoidable economic loss. Most importantly, Woodside’s decision is a big turning point in the story of industrial development in the Kimberley and Western Australia – a point perhaps, at which Western Australians can begin to debate whether they will continue to develop at any cost.
Cost was the problem, says Woodside’s CEO, Peter Coleman, who has stated that withdrawal from the James Price Point hub came down to the economics. His decision was based on projected poor commercial returns, with cheaper gas coming online elsewhere in the world.
The company is now looking at options that include floating technologies, a pipeline to existing LNG facilities in the Pilbara, or a smaller onshore option at the proposed Browse LNG Precinct near James Price Point. Clearly the project had the market worried: immediately after Woodside announced to the ASX that it was withdrawing from James Price Point its share price shot up.
Woodside’s decision will be a decisive point in the history of the Kimberley. James Price Point brought unprecedented attention to the region, with premiers, prime ministers, and east coast conservationists weighing in at length.
Whether this “win” should be attributed to the coalition of conservation organisations, community groups, individuals, Traditional Owners, and high profile advocates like John Butler and Geoff Cousins who fought such a high profile campaign against the facility, no-one can now deny that the James Price Point development story and the wider story of Kimberley development has become a fiercely polarising debate.
WA Premier Colin Barnett, for instance, voiced strong disappointment at Woodside decision to explore floating LNG technology as a substitute for the JPP facility, arguing that the decision would deny Australians jobs, and result in the loss of a $1.5 billion benefits package negotiated by Kimberley Aboriginal groups. “The Aboriginal people of the Kimberley will be denied a genuine opportunity for self-determination through real, long-term employment,” Barnett said in a statement.
While an offshore processing facility would leave the lowest environmental footprint, the FLNG technology would be developed and built offshore, likely in Asia. Workers would likely be fly-in, fly out, and resources would go offshore with little return.
Yet for one Kimberley Aboriginal family, who’ve fought the development for more than six years, the withdrawal brought nothing but jubilation. Outside the Woodside office in dusty Broome, Goolarabooloo matriarch Teresa Roe embraced friends and family as she received the news that Walmadan, her home, would not be turned into a 132 hectare gas hub.
This win has brought them one step closer to safeguarding their ancestral lands, and family heritage, but also a successful cultural tourism business that they run as a family — the Lurujarri Heritage Trail. When I spoke to Teresa’s son Phil Roe on behalf of the family, he was cheerful.
“She’s proud of the legacy of what we did for our grandsons. Our grandfather started this fight and it’s a legacy for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike…” Yet she was circumspect too, Roe said. “We’re very cautious, we truly can’t trust, ‘til there’s a ban on that site and regulation, we won’t ever give up.”
Green groups are claiming they’ve won the battle, but the war is yet to be won. “We've successfully protected a pristine slice of one of this planets most valuable natural and cultural treasures: James Price Point, Walmadan,” said high-profile Kimberley campaigner, musician John Butler.
“And although this campaign is still not fully finished and the Kimberley is still under threat from reckless industrialisation, this community have sent a very clear and stern message.”
Peter Robertson, Director of the Wilderness Society Western Australia, would like to see James Price Point protected from development permanently, and entrusted to Traditional Custodians.
“We’d like to see the Premier extend the marine park so it goes all the way past James Price Point to Roebuck bay. The best final outcome will be when Barnett rescinds the precinct and converts the area into and Aboriginal owned conservation area,” he said.
Brewing onshore in the hinterland behind James Price Point is another huge battle. While the Browse deposit has 13.3 trillion cubic feet of gas, those reserves are dwarfed by huge onshore shale gas reserves. The International Energy Association believes that the Kimberley region holds up to 229 trillion cubic feet of gas, much of which is located within 100 km of the James Price Point site.
“The biggest upcoming threat to the Kimberley is a proposed pipeline to transport shale gas to Karratha for processing and export. Once the pipeline’s built we can expect to see rapid development of a fracking industry,” said Jamie Hanson, the Conservation Council of Western Australia's Climate and Energy Program Manager.
That said, “It doesn’t matter where they process the gas, its still increasing emissions,” he added.
He claims that servicing that pipeline currently before the Western Australian parliament with gas would require thousands of shale gas wells, each of which would leave a surface footprint of 5 ha, along with roads, supplementary pipelines and other infrastructure to support their maintenance – development that would have a huge impact on the region’s environmental values.
Once built, the pipeline would effectively lock the joint venture partners — including mid-cap Australian oil and gas company Buru, as well as Japanese giants Mitsubishi – into delivering large scale fracking in the Kimberley.
Western Australia, has long relied on the quick fix of large-scale mining and industrial projects, but with little examination of the environmental costs.
“This campaign has shown that we don’t just want WA to be seen as a lucrative hole in the ground. As much as this result is a win for common sense with Colin Barnett we hope the message sinks in to Canberra as well,” said Western Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam.
From Walmadan protest camp at James Price Point, to Broome, to Perth, and the cities of the east coast, celebratory parties erupted over the weekend. In Fremantle, where only months ago 20,000 people watched John Butler and Missy Higgins at the Concert for the Kimberley, people toasted and embraced waterside as the unbelievable reality dawned, that for once in Western Australia big business had stepped down.
Seasoned Kimberley campaigner Warren House was beside himself, “I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it, we’ve won.”
New Matilda also contacted the Kimberley Land Council for comment but they did not respond before publication.
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