As Tanya Plibersek grants final approval for a fertiliser plant on the Burrup Peninsula, Woodside has quietly begun expansion of its enormous Pluto gas project. By Jesse Noakes.

Labor approves removal of sacred rock art on the Burrup Peninsula

Woodside’s Pluto LNG onshore processing plant near Karratha, Western Australia.
Woodside’s Pluto LNG onshore processing plant near Karratha, Western Australia.
Credit: Woodside

In the last week of August, the federal Environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, gave the final green light to a urea plant planned by fertiliser company Perdaman on Murujuga, also known as the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia. Plibersek rejected an emergency cultural heritage application by traditional custodians to halt the fertiliser plant, which will require the removal of multiple sacred Murujuga rock art sites, despite the objections of Elders.

The next day, work quietly began across Burrup Road on the expansion of Woodside’s Pluto facility, which will allow it to process liquefied natural gas from the Scarborough gas field and is expected to create up to 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2050. It will also supply gas to the Perdaman plant.

Attending the start of construction on the Pluto project, Western Australia’s deputy premier, Roger Cook, proudly announced that WA was the main contributor to Australia’s liquefied natural gas exports, accounting for 56 per cent. “By itself, WA is the world’s third largest LNG exporter,” he said, “with 12 per cent of global LNG supply in 2021.”

Following escalating public focus on the industrial impacts on Murujuga, the “Burrup Hub” has been described across national media as a key testing ground for cultural heritage and climate for the Albanese government. If the past fortnight is anything to go by, Labor governments at both state and federal levels have shown their mettle will not withstand industry pressure to allow more fossil fuel pollution, despite community and cultural expectations.

Just down the road from the Perdaman and Pluto sites, and joined to them via an interconnector pipeline, is Woodside’s Karratha gas plant, which in July gained approval from the WA Environmental Protection Authority to operate until 2070. A record 759 appeals responded to this recommendation, which will allow Woodside to expand their North West Shelf operation to include the Browse Basin gas field off WA’s north-west coast, an area several times larger than Scarborough.

Prior to the start of the pandemic, Woodside regularly described their industry on Murujuga as the “Burrup Hub”, with a media release in 2019 referring enthusiastically to “an integrated, regional LNG production centre on the Burrup Peninsula” as an “alignment of stars … that happens only once in a lifetime”.

At the time, data from the international research firm Climate Analytics indicated that the Burrup Hub would generate six billion tonnes of carbon emissions globally by 2070, several times more than the Adani coalmine and equivalent to the annual emissions of 35 large, coal-fired power stations.

The chief executive of Climate Analytics, Bill Hare, equated the scale of these emissions with Australia’s entire effort to reach net zero. “To do so, Australia will need to reduce its cumulative emissions between now and 2050 by about the same amount that the Burrup Hub will add to the atmosphere over its planned lifetime to 2070.”

In response to queries from The Saturday Paper, Woodside declined to comment on use of the term “Burrup Hub” beyond the information available on its website. Following price pressures at the start of the pandemic, Woodside shelved its Browse Basin plans in 2020. Cached versions of its website show a webpage titled “Burrup Hub” was quietly taken down in early 2021 and replaced with a page titled “Australian Growth Projects”.

With global energy prices skyrocketing recently, however, Woodside chief executive Meg O’Neill has renewed discussion of exploiting the Browse Basin. Woodside sources have told The Saturday Paper that the final investment decision on Browse is likely by the end of 2023, despite ongoing doubts about the viability of the carbon capture and sequestration technology required for its environmental approvals.

It would seem, then, to make more sense to refer to the Burrup Hub as one single project rather than a series of smaller individual industries. If that mega-project has an original blueprint, it may be located in an agreement signed with the state government in 2003 that zoned part of the Burrup for industry, immediately adjoining the part zoned as national park to protect the oldest, largest collection of rock art in the world.

The Burrup and Maitland Industrial Estate Agreement (BMIEA) was signed by representatives of the five local languages groups that have cultural rights and responsibilities over the Burrup.

The signing of the BMIEA extinguished native title claims from Murujuga traditional custodians and created in its place the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), which receives the majority of its funding from government and industry.

MAC is prevented by clauses in the BMIEA from objecting to industrial developments on the Burrup, which many custodians say has had a chilling effect on its capacity to advocate for Murujuga’s rock art, currently nominated for UNESCO World Heritage protection.

“For two decades we have been gagged and bound by this original state agreement that prevents us from objecting to industry and ensures the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation is unable to object or intervene to safeguard our sacred Murujuga cultural heritage,” says Raelene Cooper, a Mardudhunera woman and former chairperson of MAC.

According to Cooper, “the BMIEA agreement is the original sin that has kept Murujuga traditional custodians coerced and co-opted by government and industry on the Burrup”.

In March this year, more than two dozen Murujuga traditional custodians, including MAC’s current and former chairs and members of its Circle of Elders cultural advisory group, wrote an open letter to the WA government and Woodside shareholders calling for a pause on industry until the removal of “gag clauses” in the BMIEA allowed for the free, prior and informed consent of traditional custodians.

“The BMIEA agreement has always given government and industry all the power in negotiations with traditional custodians where we cannot say no,” Cooper says. “It needs to be ripped up and rewritten to ensure that our sacred Murujuga rock art is protected.”

Late last year, Cooper helped organise the first local rally in a generation in nearby Karratha to oppose new industry on the Burrup. Since then, she has helped lead the Save our Songlines campaign by traditional custodians to protect rock art and speak out about industrial threats to Murujuga’s cultural integrity.

Cooper and another Mardudhunera custodian, Josie Alec, travelled to Geneva in July to speak at the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Soon afterwards, Save our Songlines organised and led the largest-ever protest march on the Burrup, to the site of the proposed Perdaman plant.

Days later, when Perdaman was granted final works approval by the WA government, their campaign secured a temporary pause while Tanya Plibersek visited the Burrup. Ultimately, she declined the request of Cooper and Alec to halt the project. The resulting public furore escalated the national and international attention on the Burrup Hub, while Plibersek considers a parallel application to conduct a full cultural heritage assessment of all industry there.

“The BMIEA agreement was supposed to safeguard all of this and to create space for our ranger program and for tourism about the oldest rock art in the world,” says Tootsie Daniel, a senior Yindjibarndi Elder and member of the Murujuga Circle of Elders, who has repeatedly called out Perdaman’s claims about consultation. “If Perdaman had ever spoken to me, I would have told them to leave all the rock art right there because all those things are very spiritual and very much alive, that land and sea Country.”

Daniel identifies the Maitland Industrial Estate, 35 kilometres from the Murujuga rock art but zoned by the BMIEA for industry along with the Burrup, as an alternative site for Perdaman’s urea plant. “Maitland is where the Perdaman plant should have gone in the first place, according to the BMIEA agreement, instead of on the Burrup, which is so important spiritually,” she says.

Plibersek’s Perdaman decision may give a glimpse of the reasoning that has allowed the gas industry to proliferate in what might otherwise be the jewel in WA’s tourism crown. Plibersek described the plan on ABC radio as “a new fertiliser plant essentially next door to an existing fertiliser plant”. The minister also referred to “five sites” affected by the Perdaman project compared to “an estimated one to two million rock carvings on the whole of the Burrup Peninsula”.

The implication seemed to be that whether for new industry or ancient culture, there’s plenty more where both came from. For as long as that idea persists, the contest between the Burrup Hub and Murujuga sacred sites looks set to put the new government’s climate and cultural heritage credentials to the test.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Burrup hubbub".

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