Australian Gas Project Threatens Aboriginal Heritage

Activists worry a Scarborough gas field project could destroy petroglyphs while hurting climate goals.

In December 2023, residents in Perth, Australia, noticed a huge banner hanging from a city crane. It’s message: “Stop Woodside!” A Greenpeace activist named Joe Palmer had climbed the crane and hung the sign to protest the mining operations of Woodside Energy in the northwestern part of the country. After his arrest for the stunt, Palmer said he did it because “Woodside is brazenly contributing to the destruction of my home country.” The sign was just one part of ongoing demonstrations against the company. Activists have invaded football fields, thrown smoke bombs, and held rallies in the streets. At the heart of the campaign is the protection of Aboriginal lands in a place called Murujuga.

At Murujuga National Park, a flame tower from the nearby North West Shelf LNG gas plant lights the night landscape. Woodside Energy has utilized the plant to produce LNG since the 1980s. Photo by Marius Fenge.

Murujuga National Park is situated along the Burrup peninsula of northwestern Australia, a land strewn with towering piles of igneous rocks resting on the edge of the Indian Ocean. A land crafted and cracked by extreme temperature shifts, the park features rocky hills, tight, narrow valleys, sea cliffs, sandy shores, mangroves, and Murujuga’s hidden secret: petroglyphs.

Murujuga’s rock carvings invite travelers here on a journey through the tales of evolution and the Dreamtime stories of the Ngarda-Ngarli people. Revered extinct species such as the thylacine and fat-tailed kangaroo have been etched by hand into the land, alongside over 1 million other 50,000-year-old rock carvings, bestowing Murujuga with the world’s largest collection of ancient rock art. The abundance of art portrays the changing fauna, climatic conditions, and mythology of this sanctuary. Unfortunately, the riches of this land lie not only in its precious Aboriginal art but in the bounty of its natural resources.

Western Australia’s rugged north is home to the Pilbara region, a geographic area of over 500,000 square kilometers where Murujuga is found on the coastline directly north of Karratha. The land is characterized by its imposing gorges, extensive red plains and tremendous extractable resources. Mining giants such as Woodside Energy have been drawn to the area since the 1960s for its petroleum, iron ore, and liquefied natural gas (LNG). Woodside has utilized its North West Shelf plant to produce LNG since the 1980s and has since expanded, building facilities such as the Pluto plant on the Burrup peninsula. These plants intrude on the footsteps of Murujuga, and their construction has destroyed around a quarter of all the rock art here, erasing transcendent creativity and insightful knowledge.

Woodside CEO Meg O’Neill has said that sacred rock art was removed from Murujuga during previous construction works on the peninsula. “We did it in a way that was culturally sensitive at the time but in light of hindsight it is not something we would repeat,” O’Neill told SBS News in April 2023. However, Ralene Cooper, a Mardudhunera woman and traditional custodian of Murujuga land, decried the lack of respect for her land and sacred songlines.“Who did Woodside ask for permission, and who gave them cultural authority? Where was the consultation process? This is our sacred cultural heritage that Woodside bulldozed into the sea.”

Meanwhile, pollution from these plants is also eroding the cultural significance of the landscape. Annually, Woodside’s facilities in the area release 9,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxide into the air, creating acid rain. Before industrial action in Murujuga, the rock surface pH stood at seven; today it sits at less than four. That is a 1000-fold increase in acidity. This level of acidity erodes the manganese and iron oxide compounds in the outer patina of the rocks, whose color contrast enables the petroglyphs. If such pollution continues, all of the rock art will be vulnerable to vanishing. Even in light of these destructive industrial discoveries, Woodside has embarked on their greatest industrial expansion yet: the Scarborough gas project.

The Scarborough field is a natural gas field in the Indian Ocean, northwest of Exmouth, off the coast of Western Australia. Woodside has already been granted the key regulatory approvals from the Western Australian government and is scheduled to begin processing LNG from Scarborough by 2026. Located 375 kilometers off the coast, the project will require a 430-kilometer pipeline from the gas field to a newly built Pluto Train Two processing facility on land. That facility sits directly next to Murujuga. In an age where unequivocal evidence exists for the damage caused by fossil fuel production, critics say Woodside is ignoring not only the climatic and environmental repercussions, but also the cultural trauma which will follow in the loss of a sacred site. “It’s a bit of a no-brainer that if something is hurting climate, environment and the people on country that much, it should not be allowed to go ahead,” said Victoria Pavy, an activist for the Say No to Scarborough Gas movement.

For the moment, Murujuga remains a culturally significant site. In January 2023, the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, in partnership with the Western Australian government, submitted the final application to enable the region to be marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If successful, the induction could provide protection for the land, halting industrial expansion and enacting solutions for the petroglyphs’ survival. Pavy noted the glaring lack of care and consultation with Aboriginal Australians over Murujuga’s rights. “My view is simple in that it’s awful. It should go without saying that, as white Australians, we are not from here, and that’s their land. They definitely should be given more of a voice.”

“Woodside just came and told us what was happening,” Cooper said. “They never bothered to sit down and listen to Murujuga traditional custodians about the full impacts of their Burrup hub operations on our culture and our sacred songlines. It’s about my people and our history. We’ve been forgotten and treated so badly.”

Not only will the gas project potentially erase petroglyphs, but it will also diminish the biodiversity of the northwestern coast. A proposed pipeline to connect offshore supply to the Pluto processing plant will cross the protected Montebello Marine Park. The park is an oceanic refuge teeming with dolphins, sharks, rays, and sea snakes, and it provides crucial breeding grounds for green, loggerhead, flatback, and hawksbill turtles.

The construction of the pipeline and offshore gas facility will involve seismic activity, creating noise pollution along Western Australia’s richest migration routes. Such activity is harmful to the humpback and pygmy blue whales and other marine life here. Humpbacks use the haven of the northwestern coast to breed before embarking on their seasonal pilgrimage to the feeding grounds of Antarctica. “The risks and the impacts of such destructive activities and the consequences of these actions will be life-threatening for these species,” Cooper said.

In light of these destructive consequences, Cooper said she was compelled to act, submitting an injunction in federal court to halt the process. She argued the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) made a legal error by approving the plan despite finding Woodside’s consultation with traditional custodians inadequate. A temporary injunction was granted in September 2023, but Woodside subsequently eventually received approval to conduct seismic blasting off the northwest coast just two months after the Federal Court decision.

Woodside’s previous track record for environmental damage does not inspire confidence. While decommissioning an old field, Woodside once asked NOPSEMA for permission to dump 400 tons of plastic pollution, claiming the plastic would make an artificial reef to outweigh the ecological consequences. “If they had any real true intentions to care for the environment, they wouldn’t be going ahead with these projects,” Pavy said. But the remote northwestern coast remains in Woodside’s hands. “All these projects are way up north, and all the people live down in Perth. I have never seen the land, I have never seen where the project is, it all happens so far away. It is very out of sight, out of mind, and it is very easy for Woodside to sweep things under the rug.”

Even as Woodside crafts justification for its actions, the climatic implications of the Scarborough gas project are indisputable. Energy companies have hailed LNG as a transitional fuel bridging the gap between fossil fuels and the renewable sources. But such claims are no longer tenable, given the lowered costs of solar and wind energy. In truth, LNG consists mainly of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The carbon emissions of the project, in other words, are a substantial leap in the wrong direction for Australia’s energy mix and national conscience. With all elements of the project included, the overall greenhouse gas emissions released could top 1.4 billion tons, the equivalent of 20,000 daily commercial airline flights across the world for the next 25 years. That would triple Australia’s current annual greenhouse gas footprint, disregarding the Paris Agreement and the global goal of net zero by 2050. Activists are not interested in that kind of future.

“I’m 20, I was born in 2002,” Pavy said. “So I am going to be around for a while longer, and I am aware of the fact that fossil fuels are posing a huge threat to having a safe future for not only future generations, but those of us who are already around.”

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