Climate activists defend taking action against Woodside’s Scarborough gas

Person holds sign reading 'Support Liz & Petrina'
Petrina Harley and Liz Burrow are defending criminal charges for taking action against Woodside’s Scarborough gas project. Photo: Scarborough Gas Action Alliance/Facebook

Petrina Harley and Liz Burrow returned to Karratha, Western Australia, on December 1 to defend their charges of blocking the road to the Burrup Hub industrial precinct at Murujuga.

They are using an "extraordinary emergency defence", claiming that the LNG developments contribute to climate and cultural emergencies.

They are arguing that under the Criminal Code Act, a person is not criminally responsible for an emergency act if they believe circumstances of extraordinary emergency exist, doing the action is a necessary response to the emergency and the action is a reasonable response to the emergency.

Harley and Burrow used a lock-on device to block the main road on November 24 last year.

Woodside intends to expand the existing processing plant to take gas from the Scarborough field, while Perdaman plans to build a new fertiliser plant, using the gas as a feedstock. Both projects put the rock art and songlines of the traditional owners at risk. It would generate as much as 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in its 20-year lifetime — more than Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.

Raelene Cooper, a Murujuga custodian, activist in the Save our Songlines campaign and former board member of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, was the pair’s expert witness. The existing developments have significantly worsened erosion of the Aboriginal rock art in the area, some of which is over 60,000 years old, and is linked by DNA evidence to Cooper’s family.

During the trial, Western Australia police raided Cooper’s house, breaking down the unlocked front door, and damaging her property. She described the raid as “politically motivated”, noting that the justice of the peace was redacted in the warrant.

Cooper returned from her house to give her testimony. She gave an emotional testimony about the erosion that had occurred to the 60,000 year old art over the past 60 years. Taking to the witness stand, she said “I consider this a dire emergency as far as my people are concerned … I had gone to the rocks since I was little, as had my parents and my grandparents — there will be nothing left for our children.”

The magistrate did not allow her to submit the reports proving that the LNG developments caused the erosion. The magistrate accepted her testimony as showing the cultural emergency she was facing, without accepting that it was related to the LNG developments.

Harley tendered the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report as evidence. Harley explained that although she was not a climate expert, she understood the contents of the reports, and her belief in a climate emergency was based on them. The magistrate accepted the report, saying that climate change is “uncontroversial”.

The IPCC report states that “human influence has likely increased the chance of extreme events”, such as heatwaves, droughts, fires and floods.

Burrow and Harley’s trial is being held in the context of rising legal attacks on climate activists. In New South Wales, activist Violet Coco was sentenced to 15 months in jail for blocking a single lane of a road. This sparked protests across the country and widespread condemnation, including from Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill.

“Anti-terrorist” police raided the houses of activists from Blockade Australia and Extinction Rebellion for chalking anti-Woodside messages on a footpath.

[Liz Burrow and Petrina Harley’s trial has adjourned and will resume on January 13. Donate to their fighting fund here.]