Kimberley land grab — Terra Nullius again?

October 30, 2010
On October 17, 2000 Broome locals marched against the project. Photo:

On September 2, the Western Australian government moved to compulsorily acquire over 2500 hectares of pristine wilderness on James Price Point, 60 km north of Broome on the Kimberley coast. The land grab was to make way for a $30 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing precinct.

Premier Colin Barnett described the decision as “compulsory acquisition of unallocated Crown Land”, on ABC Kimberley radio that morning. Barnett cited delays and costs to the tax payer of ongoing negotiations with the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) as the main reasons for initiating compulsory acquisition.

In a September 5 Sydney Morning Herald article, he called the area “an unremarkable beach” with “no communities probably within 30-40 kilometres”.

Mick Dodson, director of the National Centre of Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University, told ABC Kimberley radio that compulsory acquisition was “in a way, theft of Aboriginal Land and an invasion. Traditional owners should be given as much time as they need to reach an agreement.”

An April 2009 Heads of Agreement signed by the KLC, representing traditional owners, the WA government and fossil fuel giant Woodside Petroleum gave in principle, but not final, agreement to building the precinct. Later, opposition from 200 of the traditional owners within the KLC delayed the process, stalling negotiations in June.

The KLC and traditional owners accused Woodside of pressuring the government to acquire the land.

The project is a joint venture between Woodside, with a 50% stake, and minority partners Shell, BHP Billiton, Chevron and BP, to extract and process the huge natural gas reserves in the Browse Basin off the Kimberley coast.

The KLC's executive director Wayne Bergmann was previously a proponent of the gas processing precinct and a key agent in negotiating benefits for Aboriginal people. He said on ABC Kimberley radio on September 8: “The project as it stands will not employ any Aboriginal people from the Dampier Peninsula due to a lack of education and training … The way Woodside and the premier have dealt with this matter is pushing traditional owners to withdraw support for this project.”

The September 8 Australian said although James Price Point is Woodside’s choice of location, supported by Barnett since late 2008, its partners preferred the gas to be piped south to existing processing facilities at the North West Shelf Venture in the Pilbara, precluding the need to build a new plant. Some partners have expressed concerns about an environmental campaign against building on the untouched coastline.

The area being compulsorily acquired is 2500 hectares, or five times what was in the Heads of Agreement, plus 1000 hectares of marine area. This has aroused suspicions of more extensive development.

Barnett admitted in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 5: “The government has big plans for the largely undeveloped region … just as Pilbara was critically important to the development of WA from the ’60s, over the next 50 years the Kimberley will play a similar role”.

Apart from gas, there are profitable oil, mining and agricultural opportunities. The second stage of the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, funded by the Royalties for Regions program, is scheduled to begin in April. WA is spending $230 million to increase the area under irrigation from 14,000 hectares to 32,000 hectares and grow, among other crops, genetically modified cotton.

Cynically, Barnett has said that as climate change accelerates, there will be “a rush of irrigation farmers, particularly from the Murray-Darling Basin, to move there”.

Safe Climate Perth campaigner Kamala Emanuel said the Browse Basin project is projected to increase WA’s greenhouse gas emissions by 32 million tonnes per annum CO2 equivalent from its current 79.9 mtpa.

Woodside has reportedly begun clearing the land, as well as drilling offshore. The environment group Save the Kimberley has photographs on its site of drilling and said volunteers have noticed clearing equipment heading towards James Price Point.

Joseph Roe, a spokesperson for traditional owners opposing the project, has started legal action against Woodside to halt the clearing of the site.

“The clearing is proposed for a sensitive area near the coast at James Price Point where it will have an impact on vegetation which is culturally very significant to traditional owners”, he told the October 21 West Australian. “This case is ab.”

Opposition to the project has come from Aboriginal, community and environment groups. Save the Kimberley said that, on October 17, more than 2000 Broome locals marched under the slogan: “No Gas on the Kimberley Coast.”

The Wilderness Society’s (TWS) website says the Kimberley’s unique marine habitat and species, including the world’s largest population of humpback whales, threatened snubfin dolphins, sawfish, turtles, dugongs and a vast array of fish, will be threatened by dredging, port development and increased shipping traffic with the additional risk of toxic spills or other accidents.

On October 22, the premier announced proposals for marine parks in the North Kimberley, Camden Sound, Roebuck Bay and 80 mile beach regions. Conservation groups say Barnett’s move is a smokescreen for his support for the gas hub proposal at JPP.

TWS and Protect the Kimberley Alliance have called a rally in Barnett’s electorate of Cottesloe on November 28 to highlight government plans to industrialise the Kimberley.

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