May 24, 2012
On the face of it, a $35 billion gas plant, ancient rock art and pristine coastal waters that attract wildlife and tourists don't go well together. No wonder sparks are flying in Broome.
ONCE it was paradise, an enchanted land of wild beauty, with endless beaches of dazzling white sand beneath magnificent red cliffs along the Kimberley coast. For more than a century people from all over the world were drawn there by the pearl-rich sea. In the old port of Broome, they settled and intermarried, creating a place of racial harmony unique in Australia, with its own language, cuisine and music. In more recent times tourists have flocked there to enjoy its idyllic charm.
But everything is changing. The West Australian government wants to turn Broome into another Dubai, with a $35 billion liquefied natural gas plant 60 kilometres north of the town at pristine James Price Point. If it wins federal government approval it will be the world's biggest, producing 12 million tonnes of liquefied gas a year.
But the project, driven by an international consortium led by Australia's Woodside Petroleum, has bitterly divided Broome's 16,000 residents. Some say industrialisation will destroy their town and its main income, tourism. Others see it as a way to get rich. Neighbours now abuse each other in the street, even hurling racial insults at their former friends. And every day protesters of all races picket the road to the gas site.
Dr Anne Poelina, a Nyikina woman from the Kimberley, opposes the gas hub site. Photo: Damian Kelly
A squad of 140 riot police recently flew in from Perth to protect convoys of mining equipment being rolled out to the development site for what Woodside has described as exploration works. WA's Police Commissioner, Karl O'Callaghan, said the planned 10-day operation would cost about $1 million.
Half the police force left the town after just nine days, their only arrests being two grandmothers charged with obstructing police, after chaining themselves to a van for seven hours and blocking vehicles heading to the Point site. They are due to appear in a Broome court next month.
The planned LNG plant would process natural gas pumped up from the seabed at Browse Basin 400 kilometres away, and ship it out through a vast new port at James Price Point.
Bush clearing is well advanced at the 2500-hectare site, which was made available by the WA government, even though Woodside is not expected to announce a final decision about whether or not it will build the plant until the first half of next year. It also needs federal government approval to proceed.
Meanwhile, community opposition to the project is growing rapidly. A loose coalition of environmentalist groups has launched a national campaign to stop the project, supported by Aboriginal people desperate to protect sacred heritage sites and ancient graves.
WA Premier Colin Barnett had threatened to compulsorily acquire the land without compensation if Aboriginal Traditional Owners refused to sign contracts that cleared the way for work to begin at James Price Point.
The traditional owners' representative body corporate, the Kimberley Land Council, signed a series of agreements with the government and Woodside last year, a deal that left many Broome people of all races shocked and angry.
Some Aboriginal leaders signed reluctantly, convinced it was their only way to a better life. They were promised benefits worth $1.5 billion over the next 30 years in the form of better housing, education, jobs and health care. "Why should we have to give up our land to get the kind of benefits all Australians are entitled to anyway?" says Dr Anne Poelina, an indigenous woman and deputy shire president of Broome, who was speaking as a private individual. (Mayor Graeme Campbell was out of town and unavailable for comment.)
Poelina belongs to one of numerous old Broome families strongly opposing the development at James Price Point, which Aborigines call Walmadan."Why has the state government taken over such a big area of land from our local government to give to an international mining group?" she says.
"The mining industry is heavily supported by the government already, everything from diesel fuel subsidies to tax concessions. This is just more corporate welfare."
Poelina says many Broome people are not opposed to the production of LNG, but they don't want the plant at this "special location" with its ancient Aboriginal culture and history.
"The gas should be brought ashore to the Pilbara, which is already heavily industrialised. Woodside has gas-processing plants there already."
Poelina, a social scientist, flies off on Saturday to a UNESCO conference in Paris, where she will be one of the key speakers. "I'll be telling all those international guests what's happening here," she says.
The proposed gas hub will straddle the pristine Dampier coast, where the ocean is rich in wildlife, including dolphins, whales, dugongs and giant rays.
Onshore, there are prehistoric footprints of 15 varieties of dinosaurs, many of which are unique to this place, according to scientists. Some of the best examples are in the James Price Point precinct, says Dr Steve Salisbury, a dinosaur expert at the University of Queensland. He fears that even exploratory drilling by Woodside could damage this "extraordinary" site, and he says it should be protected by a wide buffer zone. "The vibrations of the drilling machinery can be felt for kilometres," he says.
Woodside says it is test drilling as part of a geophysical exploration survey, but maintains it uses GPS technology to avoid drilling near the national heritage area that contains the dinosaur footprints.
Businessman Geoff Cousins, the millionaire advertising genius who masterminded the triumphant campaign against Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania, is now working to stop the development. He points out that if the massive gas hub goes ahead at James Price Point a port also has to be built.
"Because of the extreme tidal movements in the Kimberley, an area of dredging stretching over six kilometres out to sea has to be maintained for the life of the plant — approximately 50 years," he says.
"Woodside describes the effects of this dredging in its annual report as 'temporary'. Approximately 1500 large ships have to come and go each year and innumerable support vessels. The impact of the constant dredging and the use of sonar devices on migratory and breeding whales would be enormous.
"But while the federal government is busy telling the Japanese not to kill whales, it is remarkably silent on this aspect of their procreation, or indeed their simple enjoyment of life. Death, apparently, is what matters, politically speaking."
Cousins says he will never give up on this battle to save Kimberley. "Every time I think it's not worth the fight, the facts get in the way. The Kimberley is the last remaining pristine savannah region left on the planet. The oceans are the cleanest and have the most complex and rare marine environment on earth. The cultural heritage and rock art are beyond any measure of their worth. It's obvious why you'd try to keep them."
MEANWHILE some members of the development consortium, which also includes BHP Billiton, Shell, BP, Chevron, Mitsubishi and Mitsui, are privately dubious about the potential profitability of the Kimberley project, amid concerns about rising costs, and reports of a weakening market for LNG exports.
Martin Pritchard, director of Environs Kimberley, is a Welsh scientist who fell in love with Broome and made his home there. Now he is campaigning to stop the project, which he says would have an enormous impact on tourism in the area.
"Premier Colin Barnett wants to industrialise this place, despite the federal government recently putting 17 million hectares under national heritage listing because of its environmental and cultural importance to the nation and the world."
Though the nearly 425,000-square-kilometre region is rich in mineral resources such as bauxite, coal, uranium, and copper, it is still undeveloped because of the difficult terrain, lack of roads and prohibitive production costs.
But opponents of the project say with 34 trillion cubic feet of gas waiting for exploitation in the Browse Basin, and an output of 12 million tonnes of LNG a year, the plant could lead to large-scale industrialisation across the region.
The WA government clearly views the Kimberley as another Pilbara, an extraordinary resource for mining companies and rich source of royalties for the state for the rest of the century.
Countless government reports have been written about the project's potential over the years. The gas could provide the power for an alumina refinery to process enormous bauxite resources in the remote Mitchell Plateau in the far northern Kimberley, deposits that have attracted the keen interest of a series of would-be miners. The area is now inhabited only by Aboriginal groups living in a near-traditional way. Like so much of the Kimberley hinterland, the area is rich in burial caves and ancient rock art.
"Many respected financial analysts have said it would be $10 billion cheaper to pipe the gas to the Pilbara, so why sacrifice the Kimberley?" says Pritchard. "It only makes sense if you see through the smoke and mirrors that the Western Australian Liberal-National government are using.
"Once you can see their agenda, to dig the Kimberley up and ship it out, everything falls into place."
But Premier Barnett says the James Price site is unexceptional, and insists it must be the location for the LNG plant. If the gas was brought ashore to the Pilbara, the benefit package to Kimberley Aborigines could not be paid, he says.
Publicly, Woodside appears unfazed by the growing community opposition to the project, which has the strong backing of the government. "We have all of the necessary consents and approvals needed to undertake this work," a company spokesperson told The Age.
"Sites of heritage value at the precinct will be managed in accordance with the conditions of the environmental and heritage approvals the project requires to proceed."
But Mitch Torres, an award-winning Broome indigenous filmmaker, is "horrified" by the potential for environmental and social devastation.
"Broome was a very special place — a microcosm of what Australia could be, a place where everyone lived happily together," she says. "This is what has attracted people here for so long. Now the government wants to destroy it all."
With family ties to traditional owners of the proposed plant site, she says she is heartbroken at the loss of the ancestral country where they and her people spent their happiest times.
She was also shocked by the way the Kimberley Land Council was pressured into signing the deal with the WA government.
"I followed the negotiations closely," she says. " The government used divide-and-conquer tactics to get its way. The lawyers told us we had no chance of winning our case in the courts. People believed them."
Torres is planning to record the story in a new film. Her last documentary celebrated the legendary Aboriginal guerilla leader Jandamarra, who died in a failed attempt to save the Kimberley from white invaders.
Premier Barnett described the Kimberley Land Council's agreement with his government as "the most significant act of self-determination by Aboriginal people in the country".
Once Woodside was finished with the land, he said, the James Price Point site would be rehabilitated and returned as freehold to the Aboriginal people. But because it was a long-term project, this would not happen for 50 to 100 years.
Jan Mayman is a Perth-based writer.