Australia’s largest new fossil fuel project
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones - this is 7am
Right now, in Western Australia, plans are underway to build Australia’s largest new fossil fuel project. If built, Woodside’s Scarborough gas plant would contribute significantly to global carbon dioxide emissions. But, it also threatens the existence of some of the oldest - and most significant - rock art in the world. It’s not the first time a mining company has threatened an Indigenous heritage site in WA… Just a few years ago, Rio Tinto blew up rock shelters at Juukan Gorge.
Today - Contributor to The Monthly Jesse Noakes on why the Scarborough project is being called Juukan Gorge in slow motion.
It’s Monday February 7.
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Jesse, can you start by telling me where you are right now - and why it is that you’re there?
Yeah. So this morning I'm in Karratha, which is a small industrial town in WA’s northwest, about two days drive from Perth, if you stop to sleep on the way. Karratha sits at the gateway to the Burrup Peninsula, which is this ancient, ancient landscape here in WA’s Pilbara region. You've got these sort of soaring red rock ridges that run all the way through the peninsula. And there's this extraordinary and unique rock art right across the Burrup Peninsula.
Some of the experts that I've spoken to for this story have told me that the rock art that's on the Burrup is possibly the oldest and probably the largest collection in the world.
So the rock art itself has been here in some cases for more than 50,000 years, the art depicts animals, many of which have been extinct for, in some cases, tens of thousands of years- fat- tailed kangaroos and megafauna, extinct thylacines or Tasmanian tigers. And you've got this narrative arc that traces from the very ancient past through to much more recent developments, like the arrival of Europeans.
And it's clashing - it's coming into very close proximity with these huge gas plants and fertilizer plants that brush up right against these ancient stories that have been here in many cases for tens of thousands of years.
Mm right so you have what is potentially the oldest rock art in the world and it’s in a region that is really the centre of Australia’s gas industry. So could you tell me more about those mining projects in the area – and how they might impact this rock art?
Yeah, absolutely. The recent focus has been on the Scarborough Gas Project
Archival Tape – News Reporter 1
“The approval of the Scarborough gas field off Karratha in WA’s north has been years in the making.”
Which is a big new development from Woodside Energy
Archival Tape – News Reporter 2
“Woodside and its partner, BHP Petroleum, have approved the development of one of the nation's largest gas projects off the WA coast. That Project is worth about 17 billion”
They plan to take gas from the Scarborough gas field about 400 K's of the north-west coast of WA running an undersea pipeline and bringing it up on the Burrup to an existing processing plant called Pluto that they plan to more than double in size.
Now, when they were first constructing the initial phase of Pluto, they actually had to move more than 90 rock art sites in the process. So the industry is literally right in the middle of this priceless, unique and ancient cultural heritage.
Now, the rock art itself is extremely delicate and very responsive and sensitive to atmospheric pressures, so when industrial emissions like carbon dioxide comes off the Scarborough plant and other fertilizer and gas plants in the region and lands on the rocks, it begins to erode that very thin, very fragile surface.
But the impact from the new gas project is not just immediate here on the Burrup, it's one that impacts all of us, potentially because the emissions impact from this project is vast.
Right so it’s not only this ancient rock art that could be eroded as a result of the Scarborough gas project - there’s also the broader, environmental considerations. Just how significant is the project’s footprint and what does it mean in the context of trying to limit climate change?
Yeah. Well, I mean, it depends who you speak to, but there is a consensus that this project will emit in the region of one billion tons of CO2 over the next 30 years. So Woodside themselves say that the gas currently in the Scarborough gas field will emit about eight hundred and eighty million tonnes. But there have been more recent reports from places like the Australia Institute and a research firm called Climate Analytics, who suggest that actually, once you take into account the total emissions not just from the Scarborough field, but also from the expanded Pluto plant, where they're going to be processing and distributing the gas once it reaches the Burrup, taking into account those emissions, the full global emissions once they reach overseas markets in Europe and Asia and the gas gets burnt could be in the region of 1.3 to 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2.
Now, in the context of recent climate conferences like COP26 in Glasgow and earlier ones like Paris and Copenhagen, and the agreements that were reached there, the focus has been on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, and the emissions impact of the Scarborough and Pluto project makes Australia's obligations under those protocols and international agreements a lot harder. Some would say almost impossible. So international climate scientists think that Scarborough is certainly one of the most significant new fossil fuel projects, probably the largest fossil fuel project in Australia.
Right so this could be the largest new fossil fuel project in Australia – the scale of those emissions - more than a billion tonnes of carbon - that would make the impact of the Scarborough project larger than the Adani coal mine in Queensland – so how does a project like this get approved, Jesse?
Well, quite easily it appears… in Western Australia, at least.
As you say, the recent reports from the Australia Institute suggest that the Scarborough and Pluto gas project is going to be significantly bigger than the Adani coal mine. And when you look at the attention that's garnered over the past few years, it's easy to see why this is actually quite a significant story. It's interesting that the same week that Woodside came out and made the announcement about Scarborough getting the green light, the WA Premier Mark McGowan in response to ongoing legal challenges in the Supreme Court to environmental approvals for that project. McGowan basically came out that week and said if the Supreme Court decides this project can't go ahead, I will consider relegislating to ensure safe passage for the Scarborough gas project and for Woodside.
And I think that gives some indication of what some advocates refer to as state capture, whereby the closeness of the relationship between the resources industry in Western Australia and the WA government means that there is a de facto green light given to these projects, which opponents of these projects find very difficult to compete with.
I mean, even in this case, traditional owners who have jurisdiction over the Burrup and over the rock art that's there when they've sought to raise their voices in opposition to the project, they've found the state government actually silences them. And the traditional owners find it very difficult to make their voices heard and have a say about what's happening in their country as well.
We’ll be back after this.
Jesse, we’re talking about the Scarborough gas plant in Western Australia. It seems that traditional owners are saying their concerns about this project and their voices aren’t being heard. Can you tell me more about that?
Yeah, I think opinion in the local community on this project and others like it is very divided. So Karratha, as a town, is dependent on Woodside and Rio Tinto and BHP for most of the jobs within the local economy.
But many of the traditional owners and local elders who I've been speaking to have been privately, and in some cases publicly, voicing significant concerns and as a result, opposition to the Scarborough gas project going ahead.
Archival Tape – Raelene Cooper
“We don't want to negotiate Scarborough at all. We want them to cease the whole project because this project by law, It's null and void.”
Like Raelene Cooper, who's actually a board member of Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, which is the native title group, comprised of five language groups who have jurisdiction over the Burrup.
Archival Tape – Raelene Cooper
“They’ve gone ahead and these decisions without the members of the community”
I think there is real and growing concern in the local community, especially amongst traditional owners, that the impacts of Scarborough and projects like it haven't been fully explained to them, and they're increasingly seeking avenues for speaking out.
Archival Tape – Raelene Cooper
“That's why we're here, to take care, as guardians to take care of the land. And the government won't even listen to us. They are actually dis-including us from this whole project.”
I think the legal actions, one avenue, but we've also seen for the first time in many years that there's actually been protest action in the local community against these projects as well.
Mm… can you tell me more about that protest action? What does it look like?
Well, the last week in November last year was a really busy one on the Burrup. So on the Monday, Woodside came out and made their final investment decision about Scarborough, giving it the green light. On Wednesday…
Archival Tape – Newsreader
“Climate activists have blocked entry to Woodside's Pluto gas plant near Karratha by locking themselves in vehicles with concrete.”
Archival Tape – Protestor
“This Scarborough gas project is the largest, filthiest fossil fuel project in the whole of Australia.”
Most significantly, the following Saturday, that weekend, there was a rally in the middle of Karratha, organized by the local community.
Archival Tape – Patrick Chirnside [sings in native language]
So the rally was a mix of traditional custodians and people from the community. It was organised by a couple of Mardudhunera women, Raelene Cooper and Josie Alec, who's a local healer and singer,
Archival Tape – Josie Alec:
“I only just found out four weeks ago that this agreement is going to be signed, and it actually means the devastation and desecration of our creation story, which is on the rock art”.
Another person who spoke at the rally was senior Nulluma man Patrick Chirnside.
Archival Tape – Patrick Chirnside:
“When the light touches the land’ - [language] - the country will show you - [language]”
There was one moment while Patrick Chirnside was speaking, that was particularly illustrative of the tension that I think is becoming apparent in the community. He just switched from English to Nulluma as part of his introduction when this high powered ute a few metres behind the stage, suddenly revved its engine and there was this extraordinary turbo woosh as it accelerated past that felt very clearly directed.
Archival Tape – Patrick Chirnside interrupted [Ute revving sounds]
I think the sound of that ute revving past really captured the tension that was in the air that sleepy Saturday afternoon in Karratha between a number of significant local custodians who are concerned about what's happening on the Burrup and a local community who depend on it for their livelihoods. So I expect we'll see more rallies and possibly more interruptions in the months to come.
Hmm. Right. So Jesse, it sounds like what we have is a mining company, Woodside, pushing to get its large scale gas projects up and running. We've got a state government that's clearly backing the project to the point where the Premier is hinting that he would try and overrule the courts to legislate to allow this. And that's despite all of these concerns that have been raised by the community and by traditional owners. But this is not an isolated case, is it? We've heard a lot, particularly in Western Australia, about mining companies acting with disregard to indigenous sites. I mean, in the case of Rio Tinto, completely destroying the Juukan caves, and that's despite the company knowing about their significance.
That's right, and it's really interesting that you mentioned Juukan Gorge and Rio Tinto because I've actually heard several people refer to what's happening on Murujuga, what's happening to the Burrup Rock art as like Juukan Gorge in slow motion.
And like with Juukan Gorge, once the damage is done, there's no undoing it. It's really crucially important that the people who know most about these projects and their impacts, the traditional custodians, are fully consulted, fully included and actually get to make decisions about what happens on their country.
I think what makes this story so relevant and so significant, not just for the local community, but for the entire country, is that the same pattern of behavior and the same relationships we saw play out at Juukan Gorge between Rio Tinto and the local community are reflected here between Woodside and other industrial players and the traditional custodians who don't feel that they're being properly consulted. Don't feel, from what they tell me, as though they have an opportunity to decide what happens on their own country.
Archival Tape – Raelene Cooper
“Our human rights state that we, as Mudurra people, have every right to salvage, resource and maintain, promote and preserve our murra”
And I think there are real concerns that we could see the same outcome, which is ultimately the destruction of priceless, unique and completely irreplaceable cultural heritage.
Archival Tape – Raelene Cooper
“We need to start really thinking about our future and the future of our children. Because at the end of the day, when we're all gone, they're the ones who we're going to leave a destructive world to”
And that's important not just for the local community. That's important for all of us, for the entire country. And it's why I wanted to tell this story.
Mm-Hmm. Absolutely. Thank you, Jesse, for reporting on this and for talking to me about it today.
Great pleasure. Thanks.
The music at the end of today’s episode is Josie Alec, one of the organizers of the Scarbrough protestors, singing ‘The River Song’ in Yindjibarndi.
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Also in the news today…
Senior government ministers have publicly defended Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce after leaked text messages showed he called Scott Morrison a ‘liar and a hypocrite’.
On Sunday finance minister Simon Birmingham said Joyce was in a “dark place” when he sent the messages, while home affairs minister Karen Andrews said “circumstances are different now”.
And outgoing coach of the Australian men’s cricket team, Justin Langer, is reportedly in the frame for the top gig in England.
Langer resigned on the weekend after months of speculation about his future. But senior England cricket officials have confirmed that he is “in the frame” to take the chief coaching job for the English men’s side.
I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.
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Right now, in Western Australia, plans are underway to build Australia’s largest new fossil fuel project.
If built, Woodside’s Scarborough gas plant would contribute significantly to global carbon dioxide emissions. But, it also threatens the existence of some of the oldest - and most significant - rock art in the world.
It’s not the first time a mining company has threatened an Indigenous heritage site in WA, just two years ago, Rio Tinto blew up rock shelters at Juukan Gorge.
Today, contributor to The Monthly Jesse Noakes on why the Scarborough project is being called Juukan Gorge in slow motion.
Guest: Contributor to The Monthly, Jesse Noakes.
Background reading: Songlines or pipelines in the Burrup? in The Monthly.
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Anu Hasbold and Alex Gow.
Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
More episodes from Jesse Noakes