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Battle Lines are Laid Over Pristine Kimberley

Richard Bradley - The Epoch Times

The red pindan dust and a classic golden Kimberley sunset belied a sombre scene up on the Dampier Peninsula a few weeks back. Through the red-stained stillness could be heard the collective voices of 80 black-clad riot police chanting “hut, hut, hut” beneath the roaring of the mining plant and cries of protest from the land’s traditional owners.

The scene was James Price Point on the first day of NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week in Australia. Unfolding events seemed stunningly in conflict with a day honouring Aboriginal culture.

Earlier that morning, police had arrested traditional owners from the Manari Road as they tried to protect their country from Woodside bulldozers. Later that afternoon, after most of the media covering the event had returned to Broome, the 80 strong WA state riot squad forced their way through several hundred protesters, with Woodside contractors in tow.

When the dust cleared, the plant was rolling off into the sunset to begin clearing country, while the traditional owners and concerned citizens sat on the roadside with tears of anger and wonderment.

Was this Australia? Did this really just happen? Did State Government forces just walk and drive over Australian citizens in a bid to further the pursuit of a private corporation? You could be forgiven for thinking the scene was from a third world nation.

The fight to save the Dampier Peninsula on the West Kimberley coastline has escalated from opaque agreements between politicians, CEOs and the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) into full-on conflict.

Talks Break Down

A year ago, a myriad of players were involved, including Indigenous, environmental, political, corporate and local community groups. The State Government consultation focused on trying to reach an Indigenous land use agreement.

But when talks stalled, State Premier Colin Barnett began the process of compulsory acquisition.

At this point, a massive schism arose in the Indigenous community. Families were split as traditional owners chose sides. The KLC and their chief negotiator, Wayne Bergman, chose to accept the State Government deal after a vote that was sparsely attended by fewer than 300 Aborigines, when more than 1200 claimants could have been present, according to lawyers.

Wayne Barker, another Indigenous negotiator for the KLC, called it “negotiating with a gun to our head”, SBS reported.

In the Broome community, many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people came to believe Premier Barnett was more interested in mining the Kimberley than in helping Indigenous culture, Aborigines and their communities.

This had a galvanising effect, as previously indifferent or undecided members of the community began to stand up. They went public with their questions about the process that had led to this gas plant deal and that had created the perception that all Aborigines thought it was a good thing.

Significant Alternatives

Today, the streets of Broome are festooned with “No Gas” signs, leaving no doubt as to what the majority of Broome residents feel about the James Price Point proposal.

The Broome Community understands that development is inevitable. The feeling up here is that most local people have not been consulted and do not feature in the State Government’s plans despite their business and personal investment in the region over several generations.

The opposition to the hub is not an opposition to development. It is an opposition to the type of development that is being proposed and the way it is being engineered as a fait accompli, with no room to consider alternatives.

There are two significant alternatives to bringing the gas ashore in the Kimberley.

The use of floating LNG (FLNG) production technology to process the gas offshore on floating production tankers is used throughout the world in areas of environmental or political sensitivity. Shell has recently confirmed the use of FNLG technology to process its prelude field located in the Browse Basin.

Another alternative is piping the gas to existing infrastructure on the NW Shelf and into the Pilbara. This is a much favoured alternative and has been documented by JP Morgan and Citi to be a more cost effective alternative favoured by many of the shareholders.

However, the alternatives have not featured highly in the argument, because it is widely believed that the onshore gas plant at James Price Point will act as the thin edge of the wedge to open up and develop the vast resources of the Kimberley.

There is little doubt in people’s minds that Premier Barnett intends to industrialise the Kimberley. Uranium, bauxite, coal, copper, diamonds, gold and iron ore are all found in abundance through the vast untouched wilderness of the Kimberley.

He has said: “The Pilbara has supported Western Australia for the last 50 years; the Kimberley will support it for the next 50,” according to ABC.

Continued Conflict

Today, and every day since that fateful Tuesday in early July, out on the Manari Road, the “front line” plays out its conflict. On one side is a diverse group of traditional owners, environmentalists, scientists, professional protestors and concerned citizens. On the other is a convoy of out-of-town rental cars loaded with ex-SAS security contractors and a workforce intent on clearing land and drilling the proposed site.

There is much discussion about the legality of what is occurring, with no environmental approvals yet passed from either State or Federal governments and several major breaches to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, of which Australia is a signatory.
The hope for the future of James Price Point now lies in two key decisions.

The first decision is to be made by The Hon Tony Burke, Minister for Environment and Sustainability, at the end of this month regarding the National Heritage listing of the Kimberley. This may include the Dampier Peninsula, making Woodside’s and the State Government’s plans much more difficult to push through.

The second and most important decision will be the final investment decision from the joint venture partners, including Woodside, Shell and BHP, due mid- to late 2012. This will be the green or red light.

With widespread opposition, including the contesting of Premier Barnett’s compulsory acquisition in the High Court and the recent arrival of international environmental groups such as The Wilderness Society and Greenpeace, the fight is far from over.

Police and local Broome residents confront each other at a protest over the mining development planned for WA James Price Point. (Kate Sutton)
Posted Date: 
2 September 2011