The Western Australian government has been criticised for approving the final stage of a controversial Woodside Energy-led gas export development in the state’s north, three days after the launch of a landmark climate science report.
The government gave the green light to 32.7km of pipeline to be constructed through state waters on the Pilbara coast. It allows the installation of the full 430km pipeline, most of it in commonwealth waters, that Woodside has proposed to transport gas from the Scarborough offshore basin to the Pluto liquified natural gas (LNG) processing facility on the Burrup Peninsula.
Woodside’s acting chief executive, Meg O’Neill, said the decision would open the way for the Scarborough LNG project to go ahead.
“This is an important regulatory milestone as we now have both commonwealth and state primary environmental approvals in place to support a final investment decision,” she said in a statement.
The decision was condemned by the Conservation Council of Western Australia, which is attempting to halt the expansion of the Pluto LNG processing plant in the Western Australian supreme court.
Piers Verstegen, the council’s executive director, said the project would massively increase CO2 emissions, put marine life at risk and damage the cultural heritage of the local Murujuga people.
“This pipeline is the key piece of infrastructure that would enable Australia’s most polluting fossil fuel project to proceed. That’s the reality of it,” Verstegen said.
The council and the Australia Institute have estimated the development could emit more than 1.6bn tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime, including the emissions from burning the gas after it was sold overseas. Verstegen said the scale of the project meant it should have been subject to an environmental impact assessment looking at its cumulative impact.
A spokesperson for the WA environment minister, Amber-Jade Sanderson, said responsibility for the project largely lay with the commonwealth government.
“After assessment by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), the small section of the nearshore pipeline that is in state waters has been approved by the Environment Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson subject to a range of conditions.”
But Verstegen said the state government was evading its responsibility to do its part on climate change by “allowing a giant fossil fuel mega-project to be carved up into separate elements and approved independently”.
“That is something that should never happened in the first place,” he said.
WA Premier, Mark McGowan, announced on Tuesday he was considering legislating a state target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and Sanderson called on the federal government to increase climate targets in the wake of the landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC found human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are unequivocally changing the Earth’s climate in ways “unprecedented” in at least thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of years.
The $16.2bn Scarborough project is a joint venture between Woodside and BHP. There has been speculation Woodside is in talks with BHP to buy some or all of its petroleum assets.
Tim Baxter, from the Climate Council, said the project was likely to become a stranded asset “hanging like an albatross around Woodside’s neck”.
“It is absurd that massive fossil fuel projects like Woodside’s Scarborough gas project are still being considered, let alone approved, in 2021,” he said. “We know that gas is a fossil fuel driving climate change, and the International Energy Agency has made it clear that we don’t need and cannot afford any more of it.”
He said the IPCC report showed Australia was creating “catastrophic threats” by increasing the consumption of coal, oil and gas. “It also spelled out that methane emissions, including from Australia’s gas industry, are a major contributor to the recent acceleration in global methane concentrations in the atmosphere,” he said.
Woodside says that technological measures mean that “these developments will be amongst the lowest-carbon LNG sources globally for Woodside’s North Asian customers.”
Before it can start work on the project, Woodside needs to consult with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation on a plan to protect cultural artefacts in the area and draw up an environmental management plan to “minimise and monitor” the impact on marine life and coral.
A final investment decision on whether it goes ahead is expected later this year.
Woodside has been contacted for comment.