Plibersek considering request to halt $4.3b Burrup urea project in WA

(Note – original story contains images that may be regarded as culturally sensitive.)

Financial Review
Jacob Greber
21 July 2022

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek is considering whether to impose a temporary halt on the development of a $4.3 billion Western Australian fertiliser plant that Indigenous leaders say will threaten ancient rock art.

In an early test of Labor’s ability to balance resources development and Indigenous heritage, the minister said on Thursday she was looking into a request to intervene under federal heritage protection laws, which could extend to an emergency protection order lasting up to 60 days.

“I can confirm that I have received a request for a Section 9 declaration under the Act which I am carefully considering,” Ms Plibersek said.

“I can’t say anything further. This is a legal process. As such it’s important that I consider the application without bias and without making public comment.”

The action comes as the project owner, Perth-based Perdaman Chemicals and Fertilisers agreed not to begin any work in the next few weeks on its planned urea plant on the Burrup Peninsula, south of Karratha.

It is also understood the company is continuing talks with traditional owners.

“Perdaman has no comments on this story until the decision on Section 9 has been taken by the relevant authorities,” a spokeswoman for the company said.

Perdaman last week received state approval to proceed with ground disturbance works for the project on Murujuga country, in WA’s Pilbara region.

The urea plant is expected to create 2000 jobs during the three-year construction period, with 200 permanent jobs once operational. The company has said it would bring $US15 billion ($21.7 billion) into the local economy over the life of the plant.

Traditional owners say the project should be halted because of fears it would accelerate degradation of rock art estimated to be as old as 40,000 years.

Murujuga custodians Raelene Cooper and Josie Alec wrote to the federal government asking for ministerial intervention under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.

Ms Alec said she was relieved Ms Plibersek had intervened to order a temporary pause on works.

“However, that is only a short-term stopgap and we have been sidelined and silenced many times before,” she said.

Perdaman has previously said the project will have minimal impact on rock art.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney and Ms Plibersek will meet with the Aboriginal Heritage Alliance during the first sitting of parliament, which will resume on July 26.

An application was submitted in 2020 for the Burrup Peninsula to be granted UNESCO world heritage status.

Traditional owners are also worried about the impact on rock art from emissions generated by Woodside’s operations on the Burrup Peninsula.

WA’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has recommended Woodside be allowed to extend the life of its North West Shelf project through to 2070.

The EPA acknowledged “there may be a threat of serious or irreversible damage to rock art from industrial air emissions” but argued there was a lack of scientific consensus.

Woodside has disputed the concerns and provided funding for a government monitoring program. It is aiming to achieve net-zero direct emissions by 2050.

More than 500 appeals have been lodged ahead of Thursday’s deadline for submissions on the EPA recommendation.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific chief executive David Ritter said the project would produce 4.3 billion tonnes of emissions if allowed to continue until 2070.

He said weak environmental laws were aiding major polluters.

“The EPA did not assess the impacts from the gas when it is actually burned by end-users – it just doesn’t pass the pub test,” he said.

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