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Dinosaur tracks at James Price Point, Western Australia: recent developments
On Friday April 12th the Wall Street Journal (Asia edition)
reported that Woodside Petroleum Ltd had shelved its plans for an industrial
precinct at James Price Point, north of Broome, in the Kimberley region of
Western Australia. The US $40 billion
scheme, a pet project of the Western Australian premier Mr Colin Barnett, had
been intended to process and export vast quantities of natural gas piped in
from the offshore Browse Basin. Woodside’s change of plan came as welcome
relief to the traditional
land-owners, and also to the countless scientists and conservationists dismayed
at the prospect of massive industrial development in one of the last great
wilderness areas remaining on the planet.
While the entire Kimberley coast had been granted the status
of Australian National Heritage  in August 2011, that protection was more
symbolic than real. Many people are
surprised to learn that National Heritage status doesn’t prohibit industrial
development: it requires only that
developers should proceed carefully enough to ‘mitigate’ their impact on the
heritage values. In this case the
heritage values happened to include the entire rocky foreshore, buckled into
enormous folds by herds of Early Cretaceous sauropods en route to their feeding
grounds, and the clear blue waters of one the world’s most important whale
nurseries, dutifully patrolled by Sea Shepherd.
The state government of Western Australia had already drawn
up its plans for appropriate measures of mitigation, principally by
disregarding the largest dinosaurian traces ever discovered and by reassuring
everyone that the whales wouldn’t really suffer any serious disturbance.
Mitigation would require nothing else beyond skirting
around an area found to contain numerous sauropod tracks and promising that the
‘best’ footprints elsewhere would be removed to the safety of a museum.
Mr Barnett was keen to get started on his epoch-making project, awaiting only
by the Australian federal government… And th
You can imagine the scenario.
As conservationists rejoiced and the traditional land-owners
began to dismantle their road-blocks, Woodside admitted serious reservations
about the financial soundness of the whole project. In truth Woodside and/or
some of its
constantly-changing coterie of industrial partners (including Shell, BP and
Chevron) were never fully convinced of the need to build new industrial plant
at James Price Point. Some, at least,
had always favoured a resort to existing facilities in the Pilbara, south of
the Kimberley, and Wikileaks correspondence  seems to confirm that the
Barnett government had, indeed, imposed some constraint on potential
developers. If Wikileaks is to be
believed, Woodside and its partners would be permitted to pipe the Browse Basin
gas reserves into Western Australia only on condition that their processing
facility would be located at James Price Point.
Industrial development of James Price Point has long been a
pet project of the Western Australian premier, who imagines it as a “second
Dubai”, a magnet to attract commerce and migration into the sparsely-populated
northern part of Western Australia. Conservationists
see the project more ominously as a base-camp from which to explore, exploit
and export the rich mineral resources of the Kimberley’s interior.
Naturally enough Mr Barnett was bitterly disappointed at
Woodside’s retreat from the project, as he confided to the press, but he
the hope that some less ambitious project might still be developed on the
While Woodside’s press release was grabbing all the
headlines, a second and potentially more important announcement went virtually
unnoticed. Within the space of 48 hours
Mr Barnett had reorganized his parliamentary duties and assumed additional
responsibility as Western Australia’s new Minister for Science. (The first
media release from the premier's office didn’t state this explicitly: it said
only that Mr Barnett was very enthusiastic about
romote it. Subsequent media
releases have disclosed rather casually that he is now the WA Minister for
Science. Politicians are rarely so
modest about their promotion to new ministerial appointments.)
Now, this might be pure coincidence, but throughout his
campaign to promote the development of James Price Point, Mr Barnett had
allayed public concern by telling everyone that the final decision would be
based on science, and nothing but science. And it might be pure coincidence
that submissions about the scientific
importance of James Price Point may have been instrumental in securing National
Heritage protection for the site – a decision which had delayed progress of the
premier’s pet project to the point where Woodside and its partners had
eventually withdrawn to reconsider their options. That very scenario had been
early as May 2011. So, ironically,
it looks as if the outcome was based on science, though it was neither the
science nor the outcome that Mr Barnett had so fervently desired.
In his new ministerial capacity Mr Barnett will presumably
have an important role in shaping the future development of science in Western
Australia. Yet, despite his new-found
enthusiasm, he has no formal qualifications in science (he gained a Master’s
degree in Economics at the University of Western Australia). In fact his
record to date in scientific
matters is somewhat less than reassuring.
In 2011 the chairman of the WA Technology and Industry
Advisory Council resigned after four months in the job, complaining that
scientific research and development were not being taken seriously by Mr
Barnett’s government. The shadow
Science Minister remarked that the Barnett government had treated the Council
with contempt (sic) and slashed its science and innovation programs. In its
budget for 2009-10 the WA state
government had allocated more than Aus $50 million to science and innovation
grants, but every year thereafter the allocation has been substantially
As recently as February 2013 Mr Barnett was still promoting
another of his pet projects, a notoriously fanciful scheme that is reputed to
have cost him (and his party) the 2005 WA state election. On the eve of that
election Mr Barnett
announced during a televised leaders’ debate that, if elected, his government
would deliver desperately-needed fresh water to the capital city of Perth by
building a canal to tap into the Fitzroy River – a mere 3,700 km away in the
Kimberley. This startling
proposition, which came as a surprise to his parliamentary colleagues, as well
as the public, may help to explain why a comfortable majority in the opinion
was instantly reduced to defeat on polling day. Most of the electorate
realized that even if such a crazy project were
scientifically feasible it would entail some fairly expensive technological
research and engineering. As the Barnett
canal would be equivalent to more than 160 Suez canals (or nearly 80 Panama
canals) joined end to end, it would probably be cheaper to relocate Perth.
Nevertheless Mr Barnett continues to insist that his dream
of a great canal is not dead and that “from a technical or engineering point of
view, it’s not difficult to do”. He
remains convinced that the tough and enterprising “can-do mentality” of Western
Australians will be sufficient to overcome any challenges. Yet, at the same
time, he maintains that the
only possible way to exploit the gas reserves of the Browse Basin is to build
an industrial precinct at James Price Point. Any of the other options to be
examined by Woodside, such as floating
technology or a pipeline to existing facilities in the Pilbara, are dismissed
as untested and full of potential dangers. It seems that even the “can-do
A canal to the Kimberley? No worries. Dead easy.
A pipeline to the Pilbara instead of James Price Point? No way! Far too
difficult and hazardous.
Those who welcomed news of the reprieve for Jam
Point and the Kimberley ought to be seriously worried by Mr Barnett’s intention
to get “closer to the pure science and the research”. They should be even
more disturbed to hear
that he is pressing ahead with plans for compulsory purchase of the designated
site at James Price Point, despite renewed protests from the traditional
land-owners (Business News, Western Australia, 20th June 2013). Mr Barnett
says this measure is necessary to
get the site “project-ready”.
So, decisions about Mr Barnett’s pet project are to be based
on science, and nothing but science. But who makes the final decision on
matters of science, including the fate
of all those dinosaur tracks? Why, the
Minister for Science, of course! And
who’s the Minister for Science? Mr
Barnett. How convenient.
Back to the swamp…
1. Woodside shelves Browse LNG project. Wall Street Journal (Asia edition).
Friday April 12,2013.
2. West Kimberley,
Western Australia. National Heritage
Places. Australian Government, Department of Sustainability, Environment,
Water, Population and Communities, 2011.
3. Impact of sauropod dinosaurs on lagoonal substrates in
the Broome Sandstone (Lower Cretaceous), Western Australia. PloS One, 7(5):
e36208. (2012) doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036208
4. Browse Liquefied Natural Gas Precinct. Western Australia, Environmental
Authority, Report 1444 (2012).
5. WikiLeaks: BHP and Chevron say Woodside forced deal on
Kimberley LNG plant. news.com.au September 1, 2011.
6. Premier to oversee
new Office of Science. Ministerial Media
Statements. State Government of Western
Australia; April 10, 2013. http://www.mediasta
7. Dinosaur tracks versus natural gas. Comment on ‘Dinosaur footprints
natural gas project‘, J.M. Crow, Nature news online, May 11, 2011;
8. Chairman of WA Science Council quits. Career Spot, weekly e-bulletin, April
9. Back to the future with Kimberley canal to Perth. ABC Radio News, Kimberley
(Broome). February 14, 2013.
10. Barnett’s waterway back on WA’s agenda. The Australian, August 2, 2012.
11. Premier enthusiastic about science in WA. Science Network, WA. May 15,