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Issue #1549      30 May 2012

Kimberley gas industry struggle heats up

Last week 140 police arrived en masse in Broome on Western Australia’s north coast. They initially carried out a blitz on defective vehicles, but their primary job was to forcibly remove protestors from the entry to the Woodside consortium’s proposed $35 billion natural gas terminal site, to allow mining equipment through.

Protestor Chelsea Wiltshire is taken away by police.

James Price Point, the location of the proposed terminal, is 60 kilometres north of Broome. With striking red cliffs and beautiful white sandy beaches, its landmass and adjacent waters are rich in flora and fauna. The area contains extremely rare fossil footprints of 15 different types of dinosaurs, including unique species, and ancient Aboriginal burial and rock art sites. All are endangered by the proposal.

The gas would be extracted from the Browse Basin seabed, which contains 34 trillion tonnes of gas, and piped 400 kilometres south-east to the James Price Point terminal, then processed before being shipped overseas. A shipping channel six kilometres long would be dredged and maintained over the project’s anticipated 50-year life. A port which would be used by 1,500 ships and support vessels each year, would be constructed, as well as access roads, housing and other facilities.

Under federal environmental law the Woodside consortium has applied to the Gillard government for permission to proceed with the project, which West Australian Liberal premier Colin Barnett backs to the hilt.

However, neither has waited for an answer. The police forcibly removed the protesters and arrested two grandmothers, who had chained themselves to a van and blocked the entry for seven hours. The heavy equipment moved in, and bush clearing commenced with a vengeance.

Divide and rule

Broome’s normally peaceful 16,000 residents are now bitterly divided over the gas processing proposal. The Kimberley Land Council has reluctantly accepted it. Woodside offered local Aboriginal people $1.5 billion over 30 years, for housing, education and health care.

Premier Colin Barnett declared the government would compulsorily acquire the land without compensation if residents didn’t agree. He promised that when the project expired the land would be rehabilitated and returned to the Aboriginal people, but remarked that this wouldn’t happen for 50 or 100 years.

The mayor of Broome favours the proposal. He declared the Woodside protesters’ camp illegal, and has been credited (if that’s the right word) with the decision to call in the police, although there’s no doubt the Barnett government was fully involved.

Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents oppose the plan. Deputy mayor and Aboriginal leader, Anne Poelina, commented: “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. … Why should we have to give up our land to get the kind of benefits all Australians are entitled to anyway? Why has the state government taken over such a big area of land from our local government, to give (it) to an international mining group?”

The project’s investors are unhappy at the extra cost ($10,000 billion according to Broome scientist Martin Pritchard) of piping the gas to James Price Point rather than the Pilbara, an established industrial area with its own port.

However, the Barnett government’s approval for the project is conditional on development of James Price Point, because the Browse Basin gas could be used to refine the enormous bauxite reserves of the Kimberley’s Mitchell Plateau. Despite its enormous natural significance and priceless treasures of Aboriginal rock art, Barnett wants to open the Kimberley up as a mining area equivalent in scale to the Pilbara.

Enormous power, enormous greed

The mining industry’s power was demonstrated recently. It always seeks to justify its schemes, even the most outrageous, by referring to the numbers of Australian workers they would employ. Yet last week the federal government approved a scheme under which up to 1,700 foreign workers would be granted temporary permits to work on Hancock Prospecting’s enormous iron ore mining project at Roy Hill in the Pilbara.

Hancock Prospecting’s principal shareholder is Gina Rinehart, who is next in line to become the world’s richest person and a campaigner for the introduction of such schemes for major mining projects.

The announcement enraged union officials, not to mention hundreds of Australian manufacturing workers who were recently retrenched. Gillard, who was overseas at the time, is said to have been taken by surprise, although it’s impossible to believe she wasn’t involved in planning the scheme.

Two weeks ago the minister for resources Martin Ferguson, a prime mover in the scheme, implicitly attacked the impending resources rent tax (the “super profits” tax) and the proposed removal of company taxation concessions, with public statements about the need for company taxation “stability”, and the supposed danger of Australia losing major minerals projects. These ideas were subsequently taken up with enthusiasm by BHP-Billiton’s chairman, Jac Nasser.

The battle to convince people of the dangers posed by the fossil fuel industry, particularly concerning climate change, will have to be waged within all sectors of the community.

Assurances from the industry and government about benefits for the Kimberley Aboriginal owners over 50 years are savagely ironic. In 50 years climate change will be causing terrible problems around the world, and renewable energy will have outstripped fossil fuel as the optimum energy source. The current mad scramble of coal and gas corporations is likely to leave Australia riddled with massive scars in the landscape, vast waste dumps (possibly radioactive), huge decaying industrial ruins, and drastically reduced water supplies.

Unless, of course, we can bring the mineral barons under control, mitigate climate change and take control of our destiny. That’s a project that all members of the population, Indigenous and non-Indigenous together, must take on.  

Next article – ACTU Congress 2012 Resolution – asylum seeker and refugee policy

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