The proposed site of the controversial Woodside LNG hub off Broome. A Broome shire council election has delivered an Aboriginal majority council, with the vote being seen as a referendum on the proposed site.
WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Signs reading “No gas”, “Respect Indigenous culture” and “Barnett crucifying the Kimberley” have cropped up in the northern coastal region of Western Australia.
But you won’t see any signs of support for the region’s proposed gas hub.
Everyone in the Kimberley port city of Broome has an opinion on Woodside Petroleum’s plan to build a $30 billion gas precinct at James Price Point, 60km north of the town.
The sticking point is that while most protesters are happy to share their opinions with anyone who will listen, many who support the liquefied natural gas (LNG) project are afraid to admit it publicly.
Broome Chamber of Commerce executive officer Maryanne Petersen said many local firms feared their businesses would be shunned if they openly supported the gas hub.
“More than 100 businesses are already doing some level of work for Woodside and they have opened themselves up to possible negative effects,” she said.
Those who favoured the development risked being vilified if they spoke out.
“I was shocked one day when I was at the checkout at Coles and a woman told off a tourist for expressing her opinion,” Ms Petersen said.
“She told her: `You have no f***ing right to say anything about the gas hub’, and I was shocked that someone spoke like that to a stranger and a tourist, but it shows how passionate people are about the issue.”
In June, traditional landowners signed a deal with the WA government and Woodside to allow the gas hub to go ahead in exchange for $1.5 billion in benefits for Indigenous communities in the Kimberley.
Since then, newsletters have been circulated in Broome vilifying Aboriginal leaders who support Woodside, including their well-documented labelling as “toxic coconuts”.
The Wilderness Society says a gas hub would be the tipping point that turns the Kimberley into a mining and industrial region.
However, Premier Colin Barnett has promised the James Price Point project will be the only gas hub in the area and says his government will pass legislation to make sure that is the case.
Nonetheless, protesters have serious concerns about the region’s future.
One protester, who did not want to be identified, said she was camping at the site because she believed the Kimberley coast was comparable to the Great Barrier Reef and needed to be protected.
Another protester said he was concerned about environmental impacts on wildlife and pollution.
He said he also has concerns about Aboriginal heritage in the area and dinosaur footprints near the proposed development site, which are being examined by international experts to determine how important they are.
A previous study found the footprints were not of museum quality.
Ms Petersen said many Broome locals were worried the gas hub would change the nature of the town, in particular its businesses and its tourism industry.
Many people did not realise measures were already in place to offer some protection, including banning fluorescent work jackets in the town and at the airport, she said.
It was important to inform people about the falsity of rumours that smoke from the development would be visible from Broome’s popular Cable Beach, that trucks would be driving past every 10 minutes and that house prices would soar.
She could not understand the motivation of anti-gas hub protesters who camped out for more than 100 days and were chaining themselves to machinery.
“People seem to keep saying `It will ruin the environment’ but every time we do something we’re affecting the environment, and probably in a negative way, so we should just try to minimise it,” Ms Petersen said.
“The whole Kimberley is still going to be there. It’s just a small speck of it that is going to be used.”
A spokeswoman for the Broome Visitor Centre said tourism was so far unaffected by Woodside’s plans.
Former shire president and property investor Ron Johnston said there had been a lot of mistakes made in the past at places such as Karratha and Port Hedland, where the fly-in, fly-out work practices meant the towns could not thrive and many local businesses had to close.
He said Broome was a tourist destination and already had the infrastructure to warrant more, not less, businesses.
Mr Johnston said while he expected some pain for businesses and the community during the construction phase, it could be managed and was better for the long term.
Anyone opposing the idea was just against change in Broome.
“If this gas hub doesn’t happen, it will be a tragedy for the northwest and the Kimberley,” he said.
A final decision by joint venture partners on whether to proceed with the gas hub is not expected until the middle of next year.
Woodside hopes to process gas from Browse by 2017.