Saving the Kimberley

In the Pilbara, a large region extending east from the coast of northern Western Australia, a history of mining and more recent liquid natural gas (LNG) developments have led to heavy industrialisation in some parts. As the LNG industry expands, there is now a risk that the largely uninhabited Kimberley to the north will be subject to the same pressures. However, many people, including environmentalists and some Aboriginal traditional owners, are keen for it to be preserved in its present wilderness condition.

Australia’s Stonehenge

Around the inland Pilbara towns of Newman and Tom Price, iron ore is mined and then transported by rail to coastal export facilities at Dampier, Port Hedland and Cape Lambert, from where it’s sent to China. Of these three, Dampier, a town near Karratha, has attracted particular controversy because of its location at the bottom of the Burrup Peninsula.

This finger of land, which is about 27km long and 5km wide, is remarkable for possessing the world’s largest collection of rock art. Up to a million Aboriginal petroglyphs (images engraved or drawn on rock) portray fish, birds and animals and a variety of abstract or geometric shapes. Often referred to as a giant outdoor art gallery, it has also been described as Australia’s Stonehenge. Covering a continuous 30,000-year history, it’s believed to contain the oldest rock art in the world.

Unfortunately, despite its heritage values, the peninsula has not received the protection it deserves. A portion was destroyed when the Dampier iron ore port was built in the 1960s. Later, when Woodside Petroleum built an LNG gas plant in the 1980s to service its North West Shelf operations, about 1800 petroglyph-marked boulders were moved into a storage compound. In traditional Aboriginal culture, once a rock has been moved, its spirit is broken and it becomes essentially meaningless.

A couple of years ago, Woodside received state and federal approval for its Pluto project, involving a second onshore processing plant on the Burrup. This is currently under construction, with completion expected next year. According to Sylvia Hallam of the group Friends of Australian Rock Art, a site rich in petroglyphs was chosen when existing industrial land a few kilometres up the road could have been used instead.

In addition, the Aboriginal traditional owners are unhappy about not having been consulted. Wilfred Hicks of the Wong-gg-tt-oo is not opposed to development but believes there are other suitable sites along the coast. His views are shared by other energy companies. BHP Billiton, Chevron and Apache Energy have all chosen to develop away from the Burrup, with heritage issues among their stated reasons.

It has been estimated that to date 5-25 per cent of all petroglyphs have been destroyed, with an exact figure very hard to gauge. Rock images are potentially under threat from industrial emissions from new and existing development. In 2003, the World Monuments Fund added the Burrup to its list of Most Endangered Sites and last year the World Archaeological Congress called for the destruction to stop.

Although the Burrup was added to the National Heritage List in 2007, the Woodside lease was deliberately excluded from the designated area. For rock art aficionados, the Burrup is suffering from piecemeal heritage advice that fails to plan for the site as a whole. Furthermore, according to Friends of Australian Rock Art the site is suffering from lax management and easy access, which has encouraged vandalism and other damage; it believes that real protection can only be achieved through World Heritage listing.

While in opposition, WA’s Coalition Premier Colin Barnett urged protection for the Burrup, saying further industrial development should take place away from the rock art. Now, in his new role, he has changed his mind and asserts that industry and Aboriginal rock art can co-exist.

We can only hope that lessons have been learned for the future.

The unique Kimberley

Little known to the rest of the world, the Kimberley is an enormous region about twice the size of Victoria. Its rocks are 120 million years old and the range of natural features includes savannahs, wild rivers and wetlands. Sparsely populated and largely unexplored as a consequence of its remoteness and often rugged terrain, it is one of the world’s most unspoilt places.

The Wilderness Society (TWS) believes the Kimberley’s wilderness values are comparable to those of the Great Barrier Reef and the Amazon. Although it has its share of rare, threatened and endangered species, no mammal there has ever become extinct. As such, it is unique in WA and one of only a few such regions in Australia.

The Kimberley’s offshore waters are home to the world’s most important humpback whale calving grounds and to other threatened species including the dugong, flatback turtle and snubfin dolphin, found only off northern Australia. The seagrass close to shore provides food for dugongs, turtles and many other marine species.

Whereas most coral reefs are found relatively close to land, those of the Kimberley coast lie in deep water. Extending about 600 kilometres in length, they are very diverse and among the least impacted in the world. Montgomery Reef, in particular, is famed for its beauty, made more spectacular by the torrents of water that sweep across it every day when the tide is falling. In the estimation of WA’s Department of Environment and Conservation, the extent of the Kimberley’s reefs may rival the Red Sea’s celebrated fringing reefs.

A gas hub

While LNG from the North West Shelf is transported via pipeline to the Pilbara, plans have been drawn up for a further LNG hub in the Kimberley region to process gas drilled at the Browse Basin, 400 kilometres off the coast. This onshore project involves five joint venture partners — Woodside, Shell, Chevron, BP, and BHP Billiton.

Australian LNG is shipped to export markets in Japan, China and South Korea. In August 2009, PetroChina agreed to buy AUS $50 billion worth of LNG, 2.25 million tonnes a year over the next two decades, from the yet-to-be-developed Gorgon field off the coast of Western Australia.

Although LNG is a fossil fuel, with the recent attention given to the CO2 emissions from coal-fired power stations, LNG, as a lower-carbon option, is likely to see increased demand, particularly if a global decision is reached on emissions cuts. As a result, we are already hearing the argument that gas development in the Kimberley would ultimately be good for the environment.

Early this year, Barnett announced that the facility would be built at James Price Point, an unspoilt stretch of coast located about 50 kilometres north of Broome. This site was picked from a shortlist of four feasible locations, following a negative state government environmental report on another site at North Head further up the coast.

However, the James Price coastline is not a done deal. While Woodside (as the 50 per cent partner) is very keen to press ahead in the Kimberley, at the time of writing the other companies are reported to be more interested in the cheaper option of tapping into existing infrastructure near Karratha. The feasibility of such a possibility is confirmed in a Commonwealth report, but received a setback in July when Barnett vowed to block any pipeline running from the Browse Basin to the Pilbara as a means of ensuring the Kimberley gets the gas plant.

From an environmental perspective, many regard the James Price Point development as the “least bad” option for a Kimberley gas development. Extending up to 3500 acres (14 square kilometres), this huge complex with its attendant infrastructure and housing would require massive dredging, undersea piping, kilometres-long jetties and up to seven kilometres of breakwater.

In a 2008 report, the WA Environmental Protection Authority referred to the marine environment near James Price Point as being of medium to high sensitivity. It lies on a humpback whale migratory path and is an important fish aggregation area, popular for tourist fishing. The Shire of Broome has acknowledged the likelihood of negative impacts on the fishing industry and on nearby pearling leases. For such reasons, a majority of Broome councillors voted against the James Price Point proposal.

Despite federal government support for the plan, Environment Minister Peter Garrett, who is a “friend” of the Save the Kimberley activist group on its MySpace page, has referred to environmental hurdles that need to be overcome. The key test will be the Commonwealth’s Environmental Impact Statement process, scheduled to take place next year.

Aboriginal experiences

Home to more than 30 tribes, the Kimberley has a rich Aboriginal heritage. Many have maintained a spiritual connection with the land and see it as part of their being. This viewpoint is fully at odds with the modern Western mind, which in most cases regards land as little more than an asset or resource.

The James Price Point area is significant for the Jabir-Jabir traditional owners, with a Dreaming track running through it from Cape Leveque in the north to a point south of Broome. There are several Aboriginal sites in the vicinity, including burial places and sites of mythological importance. The point is also traditionally used for the harvesting of gubinge, a fruit also known as the Kakadu plum.

When initially faced with Woodside’s first offer, the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) decided to knock it back. However, in what Wayne Bergmann, head of the KLC, described as an “incredibly pressured process”, Barnett then threatened to seize land at James Price Point unless an agreement was reached.

As a carrot, the KLC was offered about $1.5 billion in funding over a 30-year period, covering areas including jobs, housing, health and education. It seems remarkable that remote indigenous Australians should be required to sign up to such a project in order to receive amenities and opportunities closer approximating those enjoyed by the vast majority of city-dwellers.

This offer was supported by about 90 per cent of the Aboriginal owners, but strong disagreement was expressed by some other Aboriginal leaders, including Jabir-Jabir traditional owner, Lorna Kelly.

Threats from industry

Albert Wiggan, a traditional owner from the Bardi people, believes any industrialisation in the Kimberley will probably be the thin end of the wedge, with industrial precedents making further development far easier. We could easily end up with a second Pilbara.

As LNG feedstocks have encouraged the establishment of fertiliser, explosives and ammonium plants near Dampier, there is a risk of a similar industrial clustering in the Kimberley. Zinc and bauxite mineral resources within the region point to the feasibility of smelters on the coast if a gas supply is secured.

Admiral Bay to the south of Broome has what is believed to be the world’s largest undeveloped zinc deposit, currently being investigated by the Australian resources company Kagara.

At the Mitchell Plateau in the North Kimberley, two proposed bauxite mines are currently in the advanced planning stage. These strip mining proposals are currently the greatest threats to the plateau, a wilderness area that contains a range of tropical and subtropical habitats, including savannah woodlands and wetlands.

Species that could be threatened include the Monjon rock wallaby, Gouldian finch, Black grasswren, and the Livistona eastonii palm community that is unique to WA. A very high monsoonal rainfall during the summer months increases the risk of erosion, and both the Mitchell and Lawley rivers drain into the Admiralty Gulf to the north.

TWS, which is actively campaigning for protection of the Kimberley, would like to see the Mitchell Plateau covered by a comprehensive development plan for the area in consultation with the Wunambal traditional owners. The other campaign group Save the Kimberley goes further and is calling for World Heritage protection for the northern Kimberley region, including the plateau. Concerned people are encouraged by TWS to contact Norsk Hydro, one of the companies most advanced in its mining plans.

Marine issues in the Kimberley

Several marine environment issues could arise if major industrial development goes ahead in the Kimberley:

  • Pollution, either in the form of routine oil discharges or, in a worst case, a major oil spill.
  • Noise pollution from sources such as blasting, drilling, construction and shipping.
  • An increased risk of marine pests entering the Kimberley’s ocean areas in boat ballast water, regardless of the precautions taken.
  • Direct boat strikes of whales, dugongs and other marine creatures.
  • Regular dredging may stir up sediment that can affect coral reefs and kill off seagrass.
  • A risk that the marine ecosystem could be affected by mining pollution and sedimentation from inland erosion.
  • The physical impacts from pipeline construction.

The campaign hots up

Spearheaded by TWS, a campaign running under the name Hands Up For the Kimberley has been gaining momentum over the past year. This energetic movement makes use of a hand logo reminiscent of some of the designs found in traditional Aboriginal art. “Kimberley Consulate” actions have been held regularly outside the Perth corporate offices of Shell, Chevron and BP, all of which are located in the same building. Some mainstream media attention has been focused on the Kimberley’s predicament, most of it sympathetic to the conservation argument.

TWS compares the current state of play in the Kimberley to the Great Barrier Reef, which during the 1970s was subject to a big push for oil. Fortunately, the Barrier Reef campaign was ultimately successful, resulting in the creation in 1981 of today’s huge marine park. Similarly, TWS would like to see the establishment of protected areas in the ocean off the Kimberley. At present, there are only a few of these and they are small and far offshore.

High-profile singer Missy Higgins has contributed to the cause by issuing a fundraising EP titled More Than This, available from iTunes. All the proceeds are being donated to Save the Kimberley.

An alternative vision

Instead of opposing LNG development per se, TWS is promoting alternative locations for a gas hub, including the Pilbara’s industrial city of Port Hedland, or floating offshore LNG platforms. It is advancing a vision for the Kimberley that it believes is both economically and ecologically sustainable, partnering with Aboriginal traditional owners to develop alternatives such as cultural tourism and ecotourism.

The Kimberley is seeing an upsurge in tourists, attracted by an unpopulated wilderness boasting impressive natural attractions and empty of modern heavy industry. Tourism has the potential to be an environmentally sensitive alternative and has an obvious vested interest in the region’s protection. Surely it’s possible for the Kimberley to be protected and for the gas hub to be located elsewhere.


Hands Up For the Kimberley

Save The Kimberley

Environs Kimberley

Friends of Prices Point blog

Hands off Country

Kimberley LNG Project site

National Trust of Australia (WA) Burrup site

Stand Up For The Burrup

Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW.)

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

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