Traditional Owners, activists take action against Woodside’s proposed Scarborough gas project

Scarborough Gas Action Alliance activists blockaded the primary road serving Burrup industrial hub
Scarborough Gas Action Alliance activists blockaded the primary road serving the Burrup Hub industrial precinct on November 26. Photo: Ngaarda Media

The response to Woodside’s November 24 announcement that it is proceeding with its Scarborough gas field exploitation project off Western Australia’s Pilbara coast has been swift, with multiple protests and direct actions organised in Murujuga and Perth.

The $16 billion plan, in which BHP has a 25% stake, is expected to pump an additional 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over its lifetime — the equivalent of 15 coal-fired power stations — if it goes ahead.

The expansion of gas extraction from the North West Shelf and its processing at Murujuga (also known by its non-Indigenous name, Burrup Peninsula) will also come with significant other costs to the environment as well as Indigenous cultural heritage.

Within 24 hours of the announcement, Scarborough Gas Action Alliance (SGAA) activists had blockaded the primary road into the Burrup Hub industrial precinct. Using a car and a caravan parked across a bridge, two activists locked on to a concrete barrel dropped through the floor of a caravan, while another locked on to the car, forcing police to fly equipment and personnel from Perth to cut them out. 

The three spent the night in jail before appearing in court, where a magistrate refused their request to remove bail.

Then, on September 26, SGAA activist Sarah Nix blockaded the entrance to the Woodside building in Perth by locking herself to a barrel as supporters held a picket. 

Climate activist and Socialist Alliance candidate for Fremantle Petrina Harley was among the three blockaders. Speaking to Green Left, Harley explained why she took this stand: “After two years of protesting Woodside’s plans down in Perth, momentum has been building. So when I was given the opportunity to lock-on I felt I had to do it.  

“Also we were invited by members of the local Aboriginal community, so we knew the time was right,” Harley added, outlining how SGCC activists had been given an introduction to Country by Traditional Owners, who asked that the Country care and protect them.

Speaking in support of the blockade, Traditional Owner Josie Alec told : “At least someone is standing up for our country.” 

“They disrupt plants, animals and marine life every second of the day … they disrupt the whole ecological system. A little bit of disruption to wake some people up, I welcome it. 

“And I must say, they have done it very respectfully as well, they have done this with respect.”

The action has given new energy and confidence to the community, which had felt quite isolated in the face of the relentless industrialisation of their land. 

They organised a protest in Karratha on November 27, with buses bringing people from Roebourne and Wickham. That same day, people gathered in Perth’s Russell Square to spell out a huge ‘No New Gas” human sign.

Alec described the Karratha event as, “a celebration of Murujuga … to open people's hearts and minds to the struggle our old people had. 

“The actual custodians have not been asked properly, not consulted properly … I can feel the country is sick and it needs that love from people to heal it ...You can see the acid rain out at Murujuga, you can smell it.”

The blockaders had intended to attend the Karratha rally, but their bail conditions prevented them from associating until their court hearings. 

The Scarborough gas project will require laying 300 kilometres of pipeline along the seafloor and drilling at depths of about 900 metres below sea level. This represents a significant threat to marine life, with infrastructure and associated activity impacting on the Montebello Marine Park and the whale migration paths and turtle breeding grounds within it.

Murujuga is also home to hundreds of thousands of petroglyphs (rock carvings), some dating back 40,000 years. This makes it one of the world’s greatest concentrations of rock carvings and, possibly, the most significant continuous cultural site in Australia. 

Disturbances created by the industrial hub, which first opened in the 1960s, have already destroyed 10,000 petroglyphs.

State land use planning only protects 49.3 square kilometres (44%) of Murujuga from industry. However, even protected carvings are under threat due to rising atmospheric acidity caused by petrochemical processing, which has accelerated rock erosion.

Renowned rock carving specialist has described the state government’s complete indifference to this damage as “comparable to the deliberate destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban”.

Despite urgent warnings that 2050 targets are meaningless unless there is a dramatic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions within 5-10 years, the WA and federal governments are hell-bent on giving the project every support they can.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a Business Council of Australia meeting on November 24 that he “could not be more thrilled” Woodside had decided to press ahead with the project and had “danced a jig” on hearing the news.

WA Premier Mark McGowan suggested he would if the Supreme Court finds in favour of a Conservation Council of WA case that the project’s environmental approvals are invalid.

Harley said the support and experience of her fellow blockaders Caleb Houseman and Liz Burrow, who participated in the James Price Point campaign that defeated Woodside’s proposed onshore gas processing facility in the Kimberley, kept her going.

She chuckled when mentioning that one of the police officers told them how glad they were the James Price campaign had succeeded and wished them luck.

Multiple creative actions have taken place over the past 12 months calling out Woodside’s attempts to buy social licence through its sponsorship of multiple sporting and cultural events. 

While the campaign to stop the Scarborough gas project has been gaining momentum, it still has a long way to run. It is one thing to prevent an onshore processing plant, but another to stop the extraction of gas altogether, especially given Morrison and McGowan’s absolute support for the fossil fuel industry.

To succeed the campaign will need to continue to broaden and intensify in every way imaginable. Harley explained: “We need to be as big and loud as possible.”

[The Say No to Scarborough Gas group holds weekly vigils outside the Woodside building in Perth every Wednesday.]