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The Kimberley land grab is back on (Online Opinion)

Remember the film The Castle? The Kerrigan family’s idyllic suburban lifestyle is threatened when a property developer compulsorily acquires their property.  Well, a long way from the suburbs of Melbourne, on the spectacular red coastline of the Kimberley in WA, a similar process is taking place right now, reports Kimberley project officer Wade Freeman. Only this one is fact, not celluloid fiction.

There was little fanfare or public comment when WA Premier Colin Barnett recently re-issued ‘Notices of Intention’ to take on lands between Quandong and James Price Point, 60km north of Broome, despite the land being located on the pristine and National Heritage listed Kimberley coastline. This major legal event passed quietly on 12th March 2012.

It may be the key underpinning the transfer of lands from Indigenous Traditional Owners to Woodside Petroleum.

First the back-story. Last December the WA government's prior 'compulsory acquisition' notices on the lands around James Price Point were ruled invalid as they did not properly describe the area of land the State Government wanted to acquire. As it currently stands, even with new compulsory acquisition notice, the proposed gas hub at James Price Point is on shaky ground at best.

There is still no formal sign off from the State or Federal governments. The WA Environmental Protection Agency has delayed the release of their environmental assessment, and the final investment decision from chief proponent Woodside has been delayed to possibly mid-2013. Buyers for the gas are still not committed. On site ground works and surveys are well behind schedule and the opposition in the local town of Broome is growing louder.

On top of this Woodside is selling down its share in the Browse Basin project and the joint venture partners in the project are not committed to the James Prices Point location but would favor piping south to the Pilbara to existing gas processing facilities.

Despite all this and seemingly against all common sense, Premier Colin Barnett is pushing ahead with the proposed location at James Price point. Premier Barnett has ignored advice from Commercial Barrister Michael Orlov who represented Traditional Owners Philip and Joseph Roe and Neil McKenzie. 

Following the Supreme Court challenge that ruled out the original compulsory acquisition notices on the 6th December 2011, Mr Orlov explained the complications for the Barnett Government affecting the negotiation process and the agreement struck with Traditional Owners.

The States agreement with the Traditional Owners needed to be premised on the WA State Government having the valid compulsory acquisition notices to commence negotiations on an agreement to use the James Prices Point site.

As this case has illustrated, the State had no legal compulsory notices and as such no legal standing, no procedural rights and no right to negotiate, according to Barrister Orlov. The action of the Supreme Court in ruling the notices invalid meant it is as if they never existed.

Tenure security and an agreement of Traditional Owners is also required before a final investment decision can be taken by Woodside and the joint venture partners and now the existing agreement is potentially open to legal challenge.

It means the agreements the WA Government has struck with the Kimberley Land Council on behalf of the Traditional Owners are now in question. The decision puts the future of the entire Browse gas project in doubt.

The proposed development at James Price Point would be the 2nd largest LNG processing facility in the world, 2nd only to Qatar. Currently the North West Shelf puts out over 16 million tonnes of gas per annum, Woodside initially plans to ship out around 12 million tons and expand to approximately 25 million tonnes per annum. This is to be a multi user hub; the unnamed partners will bring the total to approximately 50 million tonnes a year.

It would add 39 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per annum; 5 per cent of Australia’s national total. Thirty billion litres of waste water would be released in to humpback whale, snub nosed dolphin, turtle and dugong habitat and this would wash down to Cable Beach with any oil spill in one to ten days.

It’s clear the public is not getting the full picture on the real extent and impacts of this Greenfield project on a pristine Kimberley coastline.

The W.A. Government should desist from attempting to advance this major industrial development using 1950's style colonial strong-arm tactics such as compulsory acquisition legislation, and instead be open to a thorough debate about more appropriate sites from the gas to be processed.

The Australian Conservation Foundation and the Broome community are opposed to the construction of the LNG processing hub at James Price Point on strong environmental grounds and support the option to pipe the gas to the Pilbara.

This article was originally published by Online Opinion.

Wade Freeman is Kimberley project officer for ACF and a long time Broome and Kimberley local.