Kimberley to be next resource bonanza
TranscriptEMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: The current mining boom may have passed its peak but there is a resources bonanza waiting to fuel many more.
The Kimberley in the north-west of Australia has some of the biggest gas, coal, uranium and bauxite reserves in the world.
Tonight, Lateline can reveal the secret plans to industrialise the Kimberley with the potential to power the Australian economy for hundreds of years.
A company that's getting in early is being accused of bending the laws and poisoning the environment in this modern day gold rush.
Matthew Carney travelled to the Kimberley for this exclusive report.
POLICE OFFICER: If you fail to comply, police officers will use reasonable force to remove you and you may be subject to arrest.
MATTHEW CARNEY, REPORTER: The battle at James Price Point, 60 kilometres north of Broome, has been long, bitter and divisive. The Western Australian Government and Woodside have been trying to land an industrial hub here. They want to turn natural gas - sourced thousands of kilometres out to sea at the Browse Basin - into liquid gold, LNG, and to deliver jobs and growth to the state.
PROTESTER: We will be here day in, day out.
MATTHEW CARNEY: Environmentalists, local residents and some Indigenous leaders say the gas hub will destroy the pristine Kimberley coast forever.
PHILLIP ROE, TRADITIONAL OWNER, JAMES PRICE POINT: It's our heritage, our law, our culture and our songs in this, right through here is something very important and it's alive still today as it is. While we're alive that thing is still alive.
PETER TUCKER, CHAIRMAN, SAVE THE KIMBERLEY: We knock this on the head and I think it just gives us, collectively, those that don't want to see the industrialisation of the Kimberley in an ad hoc fashion, it gives us the opportunity then to be on the front foot for other projects that we know are in the melting pot.
MATTHEW CARNEY: And there is a much bigger battle looming, and it's inland of James Price Point. Australia's next resource bonanza lies onshore, in the wilds of the remote Kimberley.
The extent of resources and minerals up for grabs is staggering. Bauxite, diamonds, oil, uranium, gold, iron ore, coal and gas, all of world class reserves. Unknown to most, the carve up of the Kimberley is well under way. About 80 per cent is already under exploration lease.
PETER TUCKER: Iconic places, stunning places, both culturally and environmentally like the Mitchell plateau, the horizontal waterfalls, the Napier ranges, all these places are under serious threat.
WAYNE BERGMANN, CEO, KRED ENTERPRISES: The pressure is coming on us that all indications is Government want to blow it up, dig it up, drill it out, pump it, send it, sell it overseas. We're really concerned because there is no policy in place to ensure responsible development.
MATTHEW CARNEY: The Government of Western Australia says it won't be "development at any cost" and the Kimberley's unique environment will be protected.
NORMAN MOORE, WA MINISTER FOR MINES AND PETROLEUM: I have a view that's quite simple: that if we can encourage mining companies and resource development companies to spend a lot of money, as they have to, in Western Australia then they are creating wealth and creating jobs, and it's all about the state's economy and it's all about growth.
MATTHEW CARNEY: One of the first companies operating in the Kimberley interior is Buru Energy. They've struck oil and begun producing commercially on a small scale at the rate of 100,000 litres a day.
ERIC STREIGBERG, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, BURU ENERGY: We have a very vigorous exploration program going on. The Ungani field was something that was a very nice surprise for us and we think there's a potential to find quite a few more of them. So hopefully we'll be able to produce a big proportion of Western Australia's oil needs.
MATTHEW CARNEY: The company has also been targeting one of Australia's largest gas reserves: the Canning Super Basin. The reserves onshore potentially dwarf what Woodside is developing offshore at the Browse Basin. So much so the United States Energy Information has tagged the Canning Super Basin as one of the world's next hot spots, with the potential of 229 trillion cubic feet of gas.
By comparison, Woodside plans to exploit only 13 trillion cubic feet in the Browse Basin. The WA Government wants the Canning Basin to be the powerhouse for the state for the next century.
NORMAN MOORE: The onshore gas we hope will be available to service the West Australian domestic economy. At the moment our economy is not big enough to use the sort of gas that we currently may have, but that's going to grow in time.
MATTHEW CARNEY: The plan to industrialise the Kimberley has been in place since 2005, and this is the Western Australian Government's blueprint. It's an extensive guide that costs and locates new ports, industrial hubs and highways to support large scale resource developments, such as an LNG plant and an aluminium smelter to name just a few.
Confidential cabinet papers obtained by Lateline show that plans to develop the Kimberley stepped up after the Liberal Party won the WA election in 2008.
The Barnett Government set up an industry working group with major resource companies to recommend changes to legislation to fast-track approvals.
ROBIN CHAPPLE, GREENS MEMBER OF WA LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL: We've amended the planning act to facilitate development assessment panels which override local government, and we're in the process of proposing to amend the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
MATTHEW CARNEY: The political opposition says the purpose is to strip back the powers of the Environment and Indigenous ministers and to centralise decision making into the hands of the Premier and the Minister for Mines and Petroleum.
ROBIN CHAPPLE: They just wanted to make sure that the mining sector, the big end of town could get easier access to the minerals in this state by truncating some of the legitimate processes that exist.
MATTHEW CARNEY: The Minister for Mines rejects the allegation. He says the industry working group has streamlined an approval process that's become complex and costly for potential investors.
NORMAN MOORE: The way in which they go about doing their approvals we want to make sure it's rigorous, we want to make sure it's the best practice environmental and safety rules that you can put in place. But at the same time we recognise that timeliness is very, very important, and that's mainly where the reform's taken place.
MATTHEW CARNEY: To exploit the massive reserves of gas in the Canning Super Basin, the vast wilderness of the Kimberley will be studded with hundreds of wells, and many of them will have to be fracked - which means chemicals are injected deep underground to release the gas from its tight sand or shale formations. Buru Energy is one of the first companies to frack for gas in the Kimberley at this site, Yulleroo, about 100 kilometres of Broome.
ERIC STREITBERG: It was a relatively low-key operation to try and understand the rock properties. We were fully transparent about what we were doing, including all the chemicals that we used, and we've had a very diligent monitoring program going on post the frack and have seen absolutely no environmental affects.
MATTHEW CARNEY: Dr Mariann Lloyd Smith is a consultant for NICNAS, the industrial regulator for chemicals, and it's studied Buru's environment management plan for fracking at Yulleroo.
MARIANN LLOYD-SMITH, NATIONAL TOXICS NETWORK: The group of chemicals Buru Energy are using in their hydraulic fracturing are serious, toxic and hazardous chemicals. None have been assessed for this purpose, yet, for example, some of them list chemicals that can cause birth defects in animals; there are a number there that are central nervous system disorder chemicals.
MATTHEW CARNEY: Buru insists the chemicals used, like ethylene glycol, are safe.
ERIC STREITBERG: We've completely complied with all the regulations in relation to chemical use. The concentrations these chemicals are used in are very low indeed and they're injected three kilometres under the ground. So we feel very comfortable that both the way the chemicals are used and that the regulatory regime that we use them in mean there are no environmental effects.
MATTHEW CARNEY: But Dr Lloyd-Smith says Buru's environmental management plan for fracking is illegal. She says the plan contains material safety data sheets used to set out the risks for chemicals which are out of date, have no Australian contacts and are incomplete. Dr Lloyd-Smith says the document does not conform to the Occupational Safety and Health Act for WA or the national code for material safety data sheets.
MARIANN LLOYD-SMITH: And what's most concerning, I think, is there are chemicals that don't give the full details of the contents. So, while we might get a description, we don't actually get what the chemicals are. And just to explain that, a group that they talk about, which are fluorocarbon surfactants, we know are incredibly persistent. They bioaccumulate. They're found in the blood of people and children. They biomagnify up the food chain.
MATTHEW CARNEY: In response Buru says they use the material safety data sheets that were the industry standard and were approved by the Department of Mines and Petroleum.
Patrick Dodson is a traditional owner of the Yawuru land where the fracking took place. He says while Buru have consulted him at every stage, they haven't disclosed the exact nature of the chemicals used.
PATRICK DODSON, TRADITIONAL OWNER, YAWURU: We want to be satisfied about what it is they're doing and what the likely effects of this will be, not only us but on the environment, you know, on ... particularly on the water table, the they deplete the water table, this is a desert region, it could have huge consequences, and if it destroys the habitat for the ... and destroys the bioregions we will be very ... we want to know about all of this in advance.
MATTHEW CARNEY: Another indigenous leader of the Kimberley, Wayne Bergmann, believes Indigenous rights will be trampled in the rush to riches.
WAYNE BERGMANN: As traditional owners or concerned citizens we're not being provided with the level of information, projects aren't being scrutinised properly. There should be a moratorium on any further drilling in the Canning Basin until there are clear rules and guidelines in place so that we can be assured that world's best practice is being carried out.
MATTHEW CARNEY: Wayne Bergmann has the support from some senior law men of the Kimberley, and they're planning a campaign to resist the resource companies.
JOHN WATSON, TRADITIONAL OWNER, NYIKINA MANGALA: Water is very important for us otherwise we wouldn't be living, you know. I mean we've got a story to this country we're trying to protect.
WAYNE BERGMANN: Through the Kimberley Land Council we're calling a large bush meeting of the five or six traditional owner groups that are predominantly impacted by this. We're going to all stand together and talk up with one voice to ensure these companies don't steamroll us.
MATTHEW CARNEY: The Kimberley may turn out to be the nation's next major environmental battle ground, and James Price Point its first conflict.