BEFORE economics finally sank Woodside Petroleum’s $40 billion James Price Point gas hub near Broome last month, the controversial project put into sharp relief the difficult cultural and environmental realities of resource development in one of the world’s last wilderness frontiers.
Woodside and its joint venture partners claimed to have spent more than $100 million on environmental reports to justify development in an area that can boast some of the world’s most precious natural assets.
Conservationists had feared a gas processing facility at James Price Point would be the “head of an industrial octopus” that would pave the way to opening up the entire West Kimberley to development.
A co-ordinated environmental campaign against James Price Point demonstrated the ability of lobby groups to harness the power of the Kimberley’s unique environment to mobilise national and international support.
The waters off the Kimberley is the world’s largest humpback whale nursery. They are home to threatened species including snubfin dolphins, dugongs, saw sharks and six of the seven sea turtle species, including Australia’s own flatback turtle.
The Kimberley is part of the world’s largest, most intact savanna. It has some of the last pristine rivers on the planet and includes Australia’s most pristine coastline. With its fierce tides, harsh country and giant saltwater crocodiles, a more inhospitable terrain is difficult to imagine.
The environmental significance of the Kimberley is well recognised. In August 2011 an area covering 19 million hectares of the West Kimberley was heritage listed by the federal government. This year, ahead of the state election, the West Australian government declared two vast protection areas. A new 160sq km national park and a 3000sq km marine park provide the highest possible protection for natural and cultural values and will be managed jointly with the traditional owners, Dambimangari.
Despite this, the decision to pursue a floating liquefied natural gas option rather than go ahead with James Price Point does not necessarily mean an end to tensions between environmentalists and miners in the rugged northwest.
The area is considered highly prospective for gas and minerals including coal, base metals and iron ore. Led by the Canning Basin gas reserves, there are a number of development proposals in the pipeline that conservation groups believe threaten the unique Kimberley values.
A briefing paper prepared by the Wilderness Society says the West Kimberley is a global environmental asset and the only area in Australia with no recorded mammal extinctions.
Environment groups fear industrial development will increase the spread of weeds and feral animals that will threaten native flora and fauna.
According to the society, the Kimberley is a global asset and the potential for further development that is sustainable is enormous, including tourism, well-managed pastoralism and fisheries and carbon farming.
“WA Premier Colin Barnett’s pre-election commitments to the huge Wanjina National Park and Great Kimberley Marine Park are a very important start,” society national campaign director Lyndon Schneiders says. “He needs to stick to these and set in train the negotiation processes required to deliver this outcome.
“The Kimberley needs more investment in protected area management with shared indigenous management and all the consequent outcomes, such as ranger programs, and state and federal investment in tourism.”
The biggest immediate threat is seen as development of the huge Canning Basin gasfield. Environment groups have called on the WA government to undertake an environmental and cultural assessment of the basin so baselines can be established before unconventional gas industry gets under way.
They say little is known about the groundwater assets, the links between the freshwater assets and biodiversity, and the thresholds at which biodiversity values are compromised.
Despite Woodside’s decision not to proceed with James Price Point, there is another prospective gasfield in the Browse Basin that could still be developed at the site – the Poseidon field held by Karoon Gas and ConocoPhillips. The Poseidon Field sits adjacent to Torosa, one of the three gasfields leased to the Woodside Joint Venture. It appears to be several years from being ready for exploitation.
ConocoPhillips has subtly mentioned its interest in James Price Point for possibly offshore and unconventional gas sources. Unconventional gas and condensate is considered to be the big development prospect for the Kimberley in the near term. Exploration for unconventional gas resources in the Canning Superbasin over the past five years has yielded significant results from a mining prospective. The main players are Buru Energy with its partner Mitsubishi, and New Standard Energy with its partner ConocoPhillips and Key Petroleum. BHP Billiton and others have also shown interest. Buru has been a major performer on the ASX as data from its exploration, especially of the Ungani Trend, has demonstrated the potential for significant reserves.
Independent analysis (RISC) assessed the Buru tenements as holding about 47 trillion cubic feet of gas (about the same as the North West Shelf) and 1177 billion barrels of condensate.
Buru is planning a pipeline to the Pilbara and has stated it is not interested in exporting through James Price Point. Overall, the Canning Superbasin holds 229 trillion cubic feet of gas (US Department of Energy analysis). Mitchell Plateau bauxite has been a longstanding resource that has not been developed because of a longstanding government mandate that it include downstream processing to aluminium.
The Mitchell Plateau lease is held by Rio Tinto (65 per cent) and Alcoa (35 per cent) but both political parties said during the state election they were committed to negotiate away the lease to establish a national park in the area.
Pegasus Metals had proposed to mine copper on the Buccaneer Archipelago, adjacent to the Horizontal Falls, but the area was included in the WA government’s new marine national park.
Another junior miner, Pluton Resources, has proposed to mine for iron ore on Irvine Island with the support of local indigenous groups.
Rey Resources has proposed a coalmine situated at Duchess-Paradise pastoral station, 135km southeast of Derby. The mine would produce 2.5 million tonnes a year over 20 years to be exported via Derby.
Conservation groups are gearing up to challenge the Rey Resources plan with a Mining Warden’s Court due to hear arguments against the approval of the mine lease based on the contention that there was inadequate data to understand the environmental impacts of the proposed mine.
The company is expected to release a public environmental review in July.
James Price Point has shown that port development can be just as controversial as mining. A plan to develop Point Torment in King Sound has been mooted for many years.
The Department of State Development had considered the area to be a supply base for Browse gas projects.
The project requires $600m and with further delays in the Woodside-led consortium’s Browse gas project and the likelihood of FLNG, there is huge uncertainty about Point Torment going ahead.
Any mining projects in the Kimberley can expect to face a tough environmental test.
Conservation groups have argued the area needs more investment in protected area management with shared indigenous management such as ranger programs, and state and federal investment in tourism.
They believe tourism can provide long-term sustainable employment, especially for indigenous entrepreneurs, and create a lot of jobs.
Environment groups say there needs to be improved management of non-protected lands, which will be a mix of indigenous land (native title, indigenous land use agreements, and so on), pastoral leases and unallocated crown land. This means a regulatory regime that ensures cross-tenure land and sea management strategies that complement one another.
This will be very important for the long-term future of pastoral and fisheries industries. And they want an increased focus on land management strategies that yield multiple environmental outcomes, such as the Carbon Farming Initiative and burning regimes. Mining is not opposed outright in the area. But they want the highest possible environmental safeguards to be imposed.