“We want our country to be alive. We don't want it to be dead because that’s our country, that’s our spirit country, we come from that country,” said Aboriginal traditional owner Teresa Roe to a crowd outside Woodside's office on April 12.
The gathering was a celebration after the announcement that Woodside Petroleum has shelved plan to build a liquid natural gas hub at James Price Point in Western Australia’s Kimberley.
Woodside CEO Peter Coleman said it was an economic decision and not influenced by environmental or public policy concerns.
This is partially true. Former joint venture partners such as BHP and Chevron have sold their stakes in the project.
Since 2010, the cost of building the gas hub has risen by $20 billion, while increased shale gas production in the US has flooded the market.
When Woodside announced its withdrawal from the project, its share market price jumped 3.4%.
But that is only one side of the story.
Mass community activism played a huge part in the gas project’s failure. A continuous campaign, blockade, legal challenges and environmental studies have perpetually delayed Woodside’s plans.
This was also in the face of a biased approvals process. When the Environmental Protection Authority in WA was assessing the Browse project, four of the five board members were disqualified because of self-declared conflict of interest with Woodside.
So the decision over approval of the project was made by one person, who approved the project despite serious and unresolved environmental concerns.
Numerous environmental groups submitted reports about environmental problems such as the potential damage caused by dredging 50 square kilometres of seabed and carbon emissions of at least 39 million tonnes a year.
Other research discovered endangered species like the bilby, the largest humpback whale nursery on earth and the monsoon vine thicket, as well as unique dinosaur footprints.
The community campaign has mobilised large numbers of people around the world that has consistently made the project controversial. It has engaged many people in environmental campaigning for the first time in their lives.
Five thousand people protested against the gas hub in Broome in 2011. Twenty thousand people attended a Save the Kimberley concert in Fremantle in February. An action at James Price Point a week before Woodside made the announcement showed the international scale of the movement with cutout hands displayed on the dunes from people all over the world, including the US and Europe.
This is a campaign that has won an important battle using a range of tactics and involved many people that have become empowered. As an emotional Philip Roe said outside Woodside's office: “I feel very privileged that this campaign not only belongs to the Goolarabooloo people but belongs to each and every one of you that fought this campaign.”
The mainstream media painted a negative picture of event. The West Australian devoted two pages to lament the loss of jobs and how it will adversely affect Aboriginal people because they won't receive the promised $1.5 billion in royalties.
It's not just the media and conservative politicians who have being critical of the decision. Australian Manufacturing Workers Union secretary Paul Howes told the ABC that Woodside “sacrificed” thousands of jobs when it dropped the project.
There has been no serious study into the net effect of jobs lost and gained as a result of the gas hub. Once construction on the project was complete, the advertised 6000-8000 jobs would have dropped and there would have been a direct loss in long-term sustainable jobs like tourism and conservation. Many small businesses in Broome wouldn't be able to operate with the increased cost of living that the gas hub would have brought.
Pursuing jobs in renewable energy would be a far better solution, both in terms of the environment and developing sustainable industries.
Woodside’s promise to invest $1.5 billion in basic services for Aboriginal people has been dumped along with the gas hub. A “benefits package” to fund education, housing and health in exchange for being able to mine on Aboriginal land is one of the most common ways mining companies quell dissent to destructive land practices.
It is an outrageous form of bribery. These basic services should be funded by the government as basic human rights and not dependant on a mining company being allowed to destroy sacred Aboriginal burial grounds and song lines.
It is another example of how mining corporations have too much power in Australia and need to be brought under public ownership, so the resources can be used for the public good like providing services and funds to Aboriginal people.
Woodside and its joint partners are now considering other options, including a floating LNG plant offshore. This will still have high environmental impacts such as carbon emissions and damage to marine ecosystems.
The defeat of the James Price Point gas hub is a temporary reprieve. But the campaign against industrialisation in the Kimberley is far from over.
At a community meeting in Broome after Woodside's announcement, there was a strong sentiment to fight against attempts to drill for unconventional gas in the Kimberley. Any other companies that try to build a gas hub at James Price Point will be met with a determined, organised and now empowered mass community campaign.