Saving the Kimberley

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When Emily Belton and Faye Garland talk about the Kimberley they look awestruck and incredibly happy.

“It’s one of those places you’ll go to and you know you’ll never ever see anything like it again,” Emily says of the Kimberley region, located in the far north of Western Australia.

“This place is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I just can’t comprehend how anyone would ever want to destroy it,” she says.

Emily and Faye had something to celebrate on the April 12 this year. It was the day that Woodside Petroleum, the largest operator of oil and gas production in Australia, withdrew its proposal for a $45 billion industrial onshore gas hub at James Price Point on the Kimberley coastline.

Over summer break from their environmental science studies, the girls spent two weeks living at the Walmadan Camp at James Price Point.

“Phil the Aboriginal elder of the Walmadan Camp took us in and let us stay in his camp. Everyone just took us in, shared this precious, precious thing that they’re trying to protect with us,” Emily says, recalling how she was worried about intruding on the camp but was overwhelmingly happy when they were welcomed with open arms.

This place is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I just can’t comprehend how anyone would ever want to destroy it”

During their time at Walmadan Emily and Faye experienced what it was like to be at the heart of the Save the Kimberley campaign, which aims to protect the Kimberley from the threat of large-scale industrial development.[i] They also swam with sharks and got used to the feeling of waking up and seeing a king brown snake outside their tent.

Faye describes James Price Point as: “the tip of the wedge. Once the premier of Western Australia Colin Barnett had managed to get planning permission for this one, and all the other environmental things had been passed, then he said that would stand for the rest of the Kimberley.”

“It was a ludicrous amount cheaper to do it offshore. But he was pushing Woodside to do it onshore so that once James Price Point was exposed all the other mining leases in the Kimberley could be utilised,” Faye says.

Woodside has since announced that it will consider a floating offshore gas hub as an alternative.

(left to right) Faye Garland and Emily Belton

(left to right) Faye Garland and Emily Belton

The Kimberley region covers an expanse of over 422,000 square kilometres yet it is home to only 40,000 people and has fewer people per kilometre than almost any other place on Earth.[ii] The landscape is unique and largely untouched, encompassing impressive gorges, pristine beaches and small pockets of monsoon rainforest.

The proposed gas hub threatened a number of endangered species including the bilby, as well as a unique 80km dinosaur trackway with the prints of up to 15 different dinosaurs and an ancient Aboriginal burial ground.

Emily is angry that these burial grounds were threatened by the proposal.

“The dunes next to Walmadan are ancient Aboriginal burial grounds and they are still being used. Someone was buried there 11 year ago. They are very sacred for the people of the area,” she says.

The Kimberley coastline is also home to a large migrating population of humpback whales. Originally Woodside was given environmental approval for the onshore gas hub by the Western Australia Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), following a consultancy process that involved a survey of humpback whales at the proposed site. The Kimberley Community Whale Research Project was initiated to investigate the finding that only 1000 whales would pass within 8km of the site at James Price Point during the 2012 migration season. This finding was used by the EPA in the approval process.

Emily remembers learning about the consultancy process at Walmadan.

“They looked at the whales at low tide when there’s obviously not going to be a lot of whales coming through,” Emily says.

“Then they made all these great claims that it’s not actually an area worth conserving,” she says.

Faye says that as Woodside choose when to grant the consultants access the process was flawed.

“They controlled when the consultants had access to do the surveys. They took them out at times when the whales wouldn’t be coming through,” she says.

The Kimberley Community Whale Research Project found that the EPA’s figure of 1000 whales was a significant underestimation, with their conservative estimate for the 2012 migration season being over 12,000 whales.  They also found that the proposed gas hub was likely to cause significant habitat degradation and behavioural problems for the whales, through noise pollution and changing water quality from ongoing dredging and shipping movements.[iii]

Last month the Supreme Court of Western Australia ruled that the environmental approval process was unlawful and the gas hub should never have been approved.

Woodside’s plan to use floating technology to process gas from Western Australia’s Browse Basin still threatens the future of the 12,000 strong migratory population of humpback whales. The increased shipping activity and noise pollution is likely to affect the migration and breeding patterns of the whales.

Despite the Supreme Court’s findings and Woodside’s decision to scrap its plan for an onshore gas hub, Faye says Colin Barnett is still continuing the compulsory acquisition process to acquire James Price Point from land owners for possible future development.

“Colin Barnett is just determined to get into the Kimberley,” Faye says.

“I don’t think it will ever be free of risk because it is so valuable in the oil and gas industry,” she says.

Despite the ongoing threats to this beautiful place, for now the Kimberley is safe. And Faye and Emily played a part in saving it.

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 [i] See  http://www.savethekimberley.com/ for more details

[ii] Source: http://www.kimberley-australia.com/

[iii] Source: http://greensmps.org.au/sites/default/files/summary_of_results.pdf

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