James Price Point LNG controversy

Lily Rudolph

Chain Reaction #115, August 2012, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/115

Walmadan is a pristine stretch of coastal land in the Kimberley region, 60 kms north of Broome. The Walmadan Tent Embassy, the main camp of Walmadan, is a five minute walk from the beach. Low crumbly red pindan cliffs and powdery white dunes line a deep turquoise sea.

This area holds the world's longest intact trail of dinosaur footprints dating back to the early Cretaceous Period, 130 million years ago. It is home to the world's largest migration of humpback whales. The western Kimberley is the habitat for a long list of vulnerable, threatened, and endangered species including the Bilby, the Northern Quoll, the Gouldian Finch, the Masked Owl, the Snubfin Dolphin and the Dugong, many of which are endemic to the area.

This prehistoric region yields incredible potential for discoveries, yet very little research has been done. Just this year scientists may have found a new species, the miniature spinner dolphin, just off the coast of James Price Point.

Despite its beauty the Kimberley has managed to remain free from industrialisation. It is a place where humankind has not forced mastery over the earth. The land here holds stories that have not been shoveled away or cemented over; they have been left to transition naturally over time. The Kimberley has a primal energy. The stories here are real.

The western Kimberley region is home to the Goolarabooloo people. The 82 kilometre stretch of coast, running south from Garigan to Minyrr − Gantheaume Point − forms one continuous songline known as the Lurujarri Trail. This is where the spirit beings of Bugarregarre or Dreamtime are believed to have created life. Scientists, anthropologists, and travelers alike walk the trail to appreciate and better understand the stories and culture of the Goolarabooloo people.

The West Australian government formally announced its intent to acquire James Price Point in 2009. At the time, Premier Colin Barnett was beginning to lay the groundwork to build the largest Liquid Natural Gas processing plant in the Southern Hemisphere; the second largest in the world. The same year, Barnett bragged to the media: "The Kimberley Coast is set to become the Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas."

The impacts of the proposal, according to The Wilderness Society, would include:

  • clearing of 24 square kilometres of Pindan Woodlands;
  • dredging of up to 21 million tonnes of sediment with serious ecological impacts on the marine environment;
  • possible adverse impacts on humpback whales − the largest humpback nursery on Earth lies between Broome and Camden Sound;
  • impacts on fish breeding sites;
  • five marine turtle species, including Australia's own Flatback turtle, are found in the Kimberley and could be impacted;
  • a coral reef province of global significance extends along the Kimberley coast;
  • potential adverse impacts on the Snubfin dolphin population;
  • the diverse coral and other communities would be threatened by the extensive reef blasting that would be required for port and channel construction;
  • conservative estimates of just the initial project indicate that 15 million tonnes of greenhouse gases would be emitted every year – equivalent to 3 million cars (20% of WA's total);
  • the gas hub would release gases from flare towers and other operations including poisonous nitrogen and sulfur compounds;
  • continuous pollution and degradation of the marine environment from drilling, dredging, shipping, and pipelines being laid along the ocean floor;
  • the potential for oil spills − along with the proposed LNG processing plant would come the construction of huge oil and gas rigs and undersea pipelines and a massive increase in shipping;
  • a huge amount of fresh water would be required for this project which would come from groundwater or via desalination − the use of groundwater would likely have negative impacts on the waterholes and vegetation of the region while desalination is an energy (and greenhouse) intensive process that also releases highly saline water and chemicals into the marine environment; and
  • Scott Reef is in danger, with Woodside planning to put the rig that will pump oil and gas to James Price Point on top of the environmentally important and beautiful reef.

Blockade and legal battle

In 2010−11, the main campaign agenda was physical, direct action. That is how Walmadan got its reputation as a blockade camp. This year is a bit different, because the majority of the battle is taking place in the courts. Recent legal battles have done wonders in bringing layers of corruption to light.

The two Aboriginal groups native to the western Kimberley region, the Goolarabooloo and the Jabirr Jabirr, share a native title claim over the area. Since they are in a joint claim, both groups need to agree upon what to do with the land. In May 2011 the Goolarabooloo and the Jabirr Jabirr were invited for a meeting to discuss the Woodside and WA government's proposed benefits package.

The groups were offered $1.3 billion over the course of the construction in exchange for acquiring the land. Some Goolarabooloo people were so insulted by the offer that they walked out. At the end of the meeting there was a vote as to whether to accept the package. Out of those present, 164 voted in favour of the package, 108 voted against and five abstained. The Goolarabooloo were not forewarned that there would be a vote and many people were absent. It is clear that the vote was strategically set to assure the offer would be accepted.

In December 2011, traditional owners Phillip Roe and Neil McKenzie disputed the vote, as well as the WA government's right to compulsorily acquire the land. During the case it became clear that Woodside and the WA government did not have permits for any of the work they had done. By working without permits, Woodside was and still is breaking the law. The Supreme Court ruled on three counts in favour of Roe and McKenzie. The judge declared that Traditional Owners do not have to follow the Queen's law; they are lawmen in their own right.

Barnett's response was to set up the Development Assessment Panel, known throughout Broome as the 'Do As you Please' Panel. The Panel was designed to handle any project over $3 million, taking the power out of the hands of the shire, and making it easier for the WA government to take control of the project.

In May, Barnett wasted over a million dollars in taxpayers' money to bring in 140 extra police officers to accompany the Woodside convoy. The West Australian newspaper described the decision as a move to "crush the Broome community."

In recent months there has been speculation into alternative ways to secure the LNG. Woodside has expressed interest in piping the gas down to Karratha in the Pilbara region. This would be $10 billion cheaper, and more importantly, the Kimberley would be left alone. However, Barnett is dead set on developing the area with or without Woodside.

Native title claim

In June, Joseph Roe of Goolarabooloo applied to split the native title claim, so that the Jabirr Jabirr and the Goolarabooloo would each be on a separate title to the land. This would mean that Woodside and Barnett would need to ask both groups individually for license to the land. Woodside threatened to suspend over $1 billion in benefits if the groups went through with the split.

On June 14, an hour before the case was meant to be heard, the Kimberley Land Council withdrew the application due to immense pressure from Woodside and the WA government. The role of the KLC is to represent Traditional Owners, and assist them in land disputes. This is the opposite of what they have actually been doing.

There is a sign near the entrance to Walmadan Tent Embassy informing visitors that the area is protected by the Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1972. The Act makes it illegal to damage, destroy, or alter Aboriginal land. The WA Government has recently applied to the federal government to alter the Act to make it easier to acquire Aboriginal land for state expansion projects. This would only benefit mining companies, and put 90% of cultural heritage sites at risk. Already, an estimated 80% of mining activities in Australia take place on Aboriginal land. If this application goes through it will be a huge risk to Indigenous sacred sites.

Standing on the beach at Walmadan, looking out on a clear blue ocean, you can see beautiful coral reefs. Whales migrate in the water as crabs run across the sand. There is only one eyesore: the bright red drill rig, a constant reminder of what we are fighting against. Driving into Walmadan, on the side of Manari Road, there is banner: 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.' – Ghandi.

Lily Rudolph is currently living in the Walmadan Tent Embassy at James Price Point.

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