New Internationalist

Australia: gas hub threat

November 2012

A divided community weighs up whether to protect aboriginal lands or opt for $1.3 billion in compensation.

AGENDA

An item from the Agenda section of the magazine, where we look beyond the news curve with reports and comment on breaking stories.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 457 This feature was published in the November 2012 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Controversy over a proposed gas hub in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia has split the old pearling town of Broome, and is threatening to balloon into a national political issue.

The headland in question, James Price Point (JPP) pokes into the Indian Ocean some 50 kilometres from Broome. The State government has proposed it be used for a $40-billion facility to liquefy natural gas pumped from offshore fields.

Now there is talk of a Royal Commission. At the heart of the new debate are allegations that the Western Australian government and the main backer of the project – Perth-based resource company Woodside Petroleum – have ignored the state’s indigenous heritage laws.

Talhy Stotzer/AAP/Press Association Images
Talhy Stotzer/AAP/Press Association Images

But to complicate the picture, there are further allegations that the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) – an association of Aboriginal people in the region – has worked with Woodside and the state against the interests of some of its own clients.

One of the main opponents of the hub is the Green Party’s Robin Chapple. He obtained reports and correspondence through freedom of information requests which showed that, long before the gas hub was first proposed, the state had identified Joseph Roe (pictured above), Law Boss for the Goolarabooloo people, as the authority to speak to about using the land. Roe has unique knowledge of the religious and cultural traditions of JPP and has the responsibility for keeping those traditions alive.

The state also knew that when Roe and other law bosses met in 2005, they decided the area was too sensitive to be developed.

From there, the KLC and Roe went their separate ways. While the KLC has continued to support the gas hub, Roe and other bosses are still withholding their consent.

Add to that a nearby humpback whale migration zone and fossilized dinosaur footprints on the beach, and it’s a perfect storm of activist causes.

Except it’s not quite that simple. By deciding in favour of the gas hub, the KLC will receive a $1.3 billion compensation package. This will be spent to address high rates of unemployment and youth suicide, and an average life expectancy that is 16 years lower than for non-indigenous Australians.

Chapple fears that once the opposition to development is broken, the state will be free to mine the region’s copper, bauxite, uranium and coal, as outlined under a 2005 state development plan. He sees the JPP gas hub as a ‘psychological beachhead’ for the industrialization of the wilderness.

The project backers are expected to give the go-ahead – or otherwise – before mid-2013.

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