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Government sweats on Gorgon gas decision

THE WA Government is facing a difficult political decision later this year, following advice presented this month by three key government groups on the proposed development of Gorgon area gas using Barrow Island.

No-one ever thought this first WA test of an environmental, social and economic review of a large proposed project would be easy, given it was a hydrocarbon development on part of an A-Class nature reserve.

But the advice does not make it easier for the Government, on the one hand highlighting the recognised social and economic benefits of such a project, and on the other, seriously questioning the preservation of conservation values.

The advice to the Government comes from the Environmental Protection Authority, the Conservation Commission – with which the Barrow nature reserve is vested – and Allen Consulting Group, commissioned by the Department of Industry and Resources.

It has been prepared following a public comment period earlier this year on the ESE review by project joint venture head ChevronTexaco.

ChevronTexaco says Barrow is the only economically viable option for the project, which aims to develop Australia’s largest known undeveloped gas reserves.

The Gorgon joint venture says the project construction phase would create up to 2,900 jobs, ahead of 600 permanent positions.

With Barrow halfway between the gas fields and the mainland near Dampier, an initial pipeline to a Barrow facility would be the cheapest option for development.

Moreover, as Barrow has successfully hosted an oilfield development for 40 years, at the same time preserving conservation values, the joint venture argues it can be trusted with the environmental management of the new proposal.

The report from Allen Consulting has verified significant economic, strategic and social benefits from the development.

But the EPA has said that, “as a matter of principle, industry should not be located on a nature reserve and specifically not on Barrow Island”.

From an environmental point of view, the EPA says Thevenard Island is an alternative site, as are some brown-fields and green-fields sites on the mainland.

The EPA accepts the Barrow quarantine system has served “reasonably well” throughout the oilfield operations, but is not confident of the efficacy of even “unprecedented levels and types of quarantine effort” for the new project.

The Conservation Commission also says industrial development is inappropriate in nature reserves, but has nonetheless recommended that the Government be provided with “additional advice on future vesting and management of the nature reserve, and on net conservation benefits”.

The Government’s advice package is open for public submissions until August 12, after which an inter-agency panel headed by DoIR director general Jim Limerick will co-ordinate the final advice and information to go to State Development Minister Clive Brown.

A decision is expected from the Government before the end of the year.

If it is an in-principle approval, all the necessary governmental approvals would then be sought by the Gorgon joint venture, on a project-specific basis. Among other things, this would necessitate an environ-mental impact assessment.

The inter-agency panel has also advised that a legislative authority would need to be set up, to allow parliamentary scrutiny of the project.

Chamber of Minerals and Energy chief executive Tim Shanahan said the ESE process undertaken was important in allowing projects such as the Gorgon venture to be considered.

The chamber was looking at broader issues regarding how this could be used as a template for other large developments, so as to be able to promote high levels of environmental stewardship and custodian-ship in conjunction with significant economic benefits.

“These sorts of projects are crucial for WA,” Mr Shanahan said. “The direct and flow-on benefits from the Gorgon project will reach all parts of the WA community.”

The Government is not commenting publicly on any likely outcome, but ChevronTexaco remains adamant Barrow is the only viable Gorgon development option for itself and partners Shell and ExxonMobil.

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