Kimberley's gas hub to become industrial wasteland - Greens

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The Greens' candidate for the Kimberley, Chris Maher, says that we should be investing in the Kimberley’s environmental and cultural economic assets, not in the creation of an industrial wasteland in one of the great regions of the earth.

James Price Point

LET'S NOT BE HOODWINKED into accepting Premier Colin Barnett’s disingenuous claim that the James Price Point industrial precinct will affect only a fraction of the Kimberley’s natural environment.

In the seat of Kimberley, only the Greens oppose the on-shore gas factory proposal at James Price Point.

If the on-shore Browse LNG project at James Price Point gets the go-ahead, which may happen within weeks of the state election, Greens Candidate for the Kimberley, Chris Maher, warns the region is heading for an industrial future similar to what the Pilbara.

Despite other options under discussion, Woodside is committed to building this factory and port facility with strong backing from the State and Federal Governments.

Barnett knows, but dares not say, that a substantial port built north of Broome would open the floodgates for resource development throughout the region.

While Woodside is required to dismantle its gas processing facility at the end of its 30-year lease, there is no such requirement or plan to remove the deepwater harbour that would be constructed there.

Do people seriously believe that Buru Energy, Mitsubishi and ConocoPhillips and other companies that have discovered huge reserves of unconventional gas in the vast Canning Basin, to be extracted through fracking, will not use this port to ship their gas?

A network of pipes crisscrossing the desert and Fitzroy Valley and heading to Broome can readily be imagined. Rio Tinto and Alcoa’s huge bauxite reserve on the Mitchell Plateau has been waiting for decades for a Kimberley port to be built. Mining companies are interested in exploiting the brown coal reserves in the Fitzroy Valley and an export shipping facility heightens the prospect of this resource being developed.

While the Greens will campaign on a number of issues in this election, the proposed Browse LNG project must hold centre stage because so much of the Kimberley’s future rides on this single mega-development.

The manner in which the major parties are forcing their plans upon us is evident in the environmental and planning processes that led to the Liberal–National State Government’s approval for the James Price Point project, supported by the Labor Party.

The record number of serious objections under the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) Act was largely ignored by the EPA, the supposedly independent environmental watchdog for the State.

We still have no idea about the effect of this project on the groundwater that underlies Broome. We still don’t know whether this thirsty factory, which will freeze gas to liquid form, will require a desalination plant to be built.

Questions, supported by evidence, raised by objectors about the potential destruction of marine and terrestrial plants and animals have not been satisfactorily answered.

Questions about air pollution and the potential for catastrophic spillages into the ocean have been ignored.

Questions about social impact were not even considered by the EPA, despite the terms of reference of the Commonwealth and State government’s Strategic Assessment.

Instead, the State Government wants to set up a myriad of committees controlled by political power in Perth to attempt to mitigate the social impacts of the JPP project.

The whole environmental investigative and approval process concerning JPP has been a sham.

The final recommendation for approval of the project was made by the EPA Chairman acting alone, after the four other members were stood aside from the decision-making because all of them had a conflict of interest. It is clear that the environmental assessment surrounding the biggest industrial development ever planned for Western Australia has been a side show – a charade – and was never intended to counter a predetermined decision to build this monstrous factory and port on the Kimberley coast.

The JPP assessment process is not yet complete. The project still needs final approval under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It is highly unlikely that the Federal Environment Minister will veto the project, although he may set further conditions.

So intent is the Barnett Government on building this gas factory that it has changed the planning law to sidestep local planning decision-making.

Development Assessment Panels (DAP), with a government-appointed majority, have been assembled to rubber-stamp government planning requirements. The DAP has already been used to give Woodside retrospective approval for its work at JPP.

A further disempowering instrument devised by the state is a Special Improvement Plan, which will centralise all planning decisions within the government’s State Planning Commission.

The Australia Institute, in an independent analysis, points out that the WA Government’s own Social Impact Assessment found that the proposed JPP Development is likely to:

  • Be a net cost to the taxpayers of WA, the government spending more money supporting it than it will collect in state taxes

  • Rely on up to 97 per cent fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers and employ very few local workers

  • Harm the Kimberley’s reputation as a world-class tourism destination

  • Place additional demand on already stretched community services such as health and police

  • Cause inflation in the Broome area.

  • (The media release ‘James Price Point LNG project will cost jobs and drive up cost of living for local communities: new analysis’, 8 August 2012 can be found here.)

    This analysis demonstrates that the James Price Point development is not the end goal of the Colin Barnett/Brendon Grylls obsession; that goal is the industrialization of the Kimberley.

    So, what has the proposed development delivered for Broome so far? Until recently, Broome was a harmonious community. Now, the town is deep in conflict. People have lost jobs for taking a public position on the development; others have lost lifelong friendships. Families have been divided, as has the Indigenous community. The Barnett/Grylls obsession with this project has wreaked havoc upon Broome, the largest town in the Kimberley. Smaller towns and communities in the region would be less able to withstand such an onslaught.

    The Greens say that corporations that propose major projects in the Kimberley must gain a social and environmental licence to operate, in accordance with international standards.

    Woodside does not have such a licence to operate at James Price Point.

    When the Final Investment Decision is made on the JPP project in the next few months by Woodside and its joint venture partners, commercial factors will be critical, but politics will also play an important part. A significant vote for the Greens by Kimberley people in this election will be noted by the Browse joint venture partners, who have international brands to protect. The outgoing member for the Kimberley, Labor MP Carol Martin,  made a high profile speech in State Parliament a few weeks ago, where she labelled people who oppose the JPP project as ‘mung beans’, comprising a small minority of Kimberley residents.

    This assessment is wrong. Over recent months I have talked to hundreds of people from all walks of life throughout the Kimberley, and the vast majority tell me that they are opposed to this project and opposed to the major parties’ vision of an industrialized Kimberley. This election is an opportunity for the voices of Kimberley people to be heard.

    Let us imagine for a moment the abrupt impact on Broome and surrounding communities if the joint venture’s Final Investment Decision is to go ahead. A Temporary Off-site Workers’ Camp (TOWC) will immediately be built in or close to Broome. The TOWC will house some 800 workers, whose job will be to construct the gas hub workers’ village at JPP, which, in turn, will house between 6000 and 8000 people, who will build the gas factory and port. At the same time, Woodside will build some 240 houses in Broome North for the company’s permanent staff. In the 2010/2011 financial year just 136 new residential dwellings were approved in Broome.

    Woodside’s needs will overwhelm the capacity of Broome’s building industry, which will be displaced by big contractors from cities. Traffic through Broome airport will multiply. The hundreds of FIFO workers in high-viz clothing will surely challenge the tourist’s expectation of Broome as a laid-back retreat.

    There is anecdotal evidence that resource workers from the Pilbara who enjoy holidaying and spending money in the Kimberley will stop coming if we industrialize, as they are looking for an escape, not more of the same. Hundreds of vehicles every day will travel up the Cape Leveque Road and along a new, sealed road to JPP.

    The boom-time impact on house and construction prices will mimic the Pilbara experience, driving residents away. And the protests and police interventions will make previous protests seem like a picnic.

    Premier Barnett, supported by the National and Labor Parties, has described the Traditional Owners’ decision to support the gas development as the greatest act of Indigenous self-determination in Australia’s history.

    Since 1788 Aboriginal people have been systematically dispossessed of their lands throughout Australia. Much of that dispossession was aggressive and bloody.

    It took more than two centuries for Australia to recognise at law the rights of Indigenous people through Native Title in 1992.

    The Barnett/Grylls government’s act of Compulsory Acquisition just 19 years later is another episode in the dispossession of Aboriginal people. Compulsory acquisition can never promote nor lead to self-determination.

    By no measure was the James Price Point Native Title Agreement made with ‘free, prior and informed consent’, consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

    The Indigenous benefits package from the James Price Point Native Title Agreement should be carefully scrutinised. One and a half billion dollars may sound a lot, however it is to benefit all Kimberley Aboriginal people, who, as of the 2009 census totalled 13,921. Over 30 years it amounts to just $50 million a year, or an average of $3,591 per person: less than the Baby Bonus, and paying mainly for citizenship entitlements such as education and health services.

    The Greens say that it is morally wrong to use Compulsory Acquisition to pressure native title holders to trade their country for services and benefits to which we are all entitled as citizens. Funding for Indigenous development and sustainability should be provided from the immense revenue governments collect through resource development, regardless of where Indigenous people live.

    Over the past three months I have visited more than 50 Aboriginal communities throughout the Kimberley and have been appalled by the decaying infrastructure and sense of loss of community control. The Commonwealth and State Governments have a defunding agenda, intended to move Aboriginal people from smaller communities into larger ‘hub communities’ and Kimberley towns. Broome is now experiencing this regional population movement, with all its social consequences.

    The Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), which for the past 20 years has given many communities their economic foundation, is closing down this year, to be replaced by a new ‘job network’ scheme. This policy is to ‘transition’ Aboriginal people into mainstream work: jobs in the so-called ‘real economy’. And what is that ‘real economy’? It is the James Price Point gas hub and the regional industrial future that will flow from it.

    What we are seeing is tragic public policy failure being played out in the Kimberley. This is a region with abundant untapped non-mineral wealth. The people sharing this astonishing land and seascape are natural entrepreneurs. In the 21

    In the years that I have lived in the Kimberley I have witnessed an extraordinary growth in tourism and its spinoffs for local businesses. The value of tourism to the region in 2009 was $276M. Compared to other industries (aquaculture $67M, Fishing $9.8M, Pearling $64M), it is a major economic driver that should be further developed through investment, not overwhelmed by industrialization. The Kimberley Development Commission lists nature-based, cultural and adventure tourism as growing opportunities for the region. We say these opportunities are put at risk by industrialization.

    Then there are the arts — music, painting, performing arts thrive here — aquaculture and horticulture, Aboriginal environmental management and the beginnings of the carbon economy. There is unlimited potential in the new and emerging industries such as renewable energy generation and IT development. There is scope for basing scientific research and education in the region.

    The stated goal of the Royalties for Regions (RFR) program is to ‘build strong and vibrant regional communities that are desirable places to live’. Few people would know that, over the past four years, $80 million of RFR has been allocated to an Exploration Incentive Scheme, subsidising mineral resource exploration in WA. This includes just over $1million for uranium exploration. Not by any stretch of the imagination could uranium exploration result in a ‘vibrant regional community that is a desirable place to live’.

    The Greens want to see investment in the Kimberley’s environmental and cultural economic assets, not in the creation of an industrial wasteland in one of the great regions of the earth.

    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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