Proposed resource projects will test the state government’s decision-making prowess.
Two potential resource projects have hit the headlines this month; they vary enormously in scale and significance but both throw out policy challenges for the Barnett government.
One is a small coalmine near Margaret River; the other is a major gas-processing hub at James Price Point, 60 kilometres north of Broome.
In both cases, unlikely alliances have been formed in opposition to the proposed developments.
Up at Broome, musician and environmental campaigner John Butler has teamed up with Aboriginal leader Joseph Rowe to fight the proposed gas hub, even though the Kimberley Land Council has previously endorsed it.
Down at Margaret River, local MP and former Liberal treasurer Troy Buswell has teamed up with his new partner, independent Greens MP Adele Carles, to campaign against the coal mine.
Their campaign mirrors the broader alliance between environmentalists and wine industry leaders, including some like Michael Wright who have made their fortunes from the mining industry.
In both locations, the tourism and hospitality industries are also critical of the planned developments, fearful that a new industry will damage their attraction.
In the middle is premier Colin Barnett, who has made up his mind on James Price Point but seems to be wavering on the coal project.
“The state government does have concerns about a proposal for a coal mine in Margaret River,” he said earlier this week.
“While we're a very pro-mining, pro-development government, we do recognise that this is a potential conflict of interest.
“We do not want to see any development that compromises the tourism potential and the environment and the wine growing in that area.”
Those comments marked a change of tone by the premier, who had previously said the coalmine proponents should be allowed to go through the normal project assessment process. As clearly they should.
In contrast, he is fulsome in support of James Price Point as the site for two liquefied natural gas plants, with the Woodside-led Browse joint venture being the first.
The LNG hub would be used to process the massive gas reserves located off the Kimberley coast.
There are alternatives. The gas could be piped to the existing LNG hub on the Burrup Peninsula, or to Darwin, as Japanese group Inpex is planning for its Ichthys development, after it failed to gain timely approval for its preferred site on the Maret Islands.
Another option is offshore processing on a floating LNG plant, as Shell proposes for its Prelude development.
Each of these options carries environmental, social, technical and economic issues.
What is clear is that developing a gas hub on the Kimberley coast provides the best opportunity to generate economic benefits, for the immediate region, for the state and the national economy.
For this reason, the concept of a gas hub has long had bi-partisan political support.
Building on that support, the Kimberley Land Council last year negotiated a preliminary agreement with Woodside and the state that would deliverer benefits worth $1.5 billion to aboriginal groups.
While the KLC appeared to have wide support, one Aboriginal leader, Mr Roe, has challenged its right to negotiate on behalf of native title claimants.
Consequently the KLC has not been in a position to negotiate a final agreement with Woodside and the state.
The delays prompted Mr Barnett to take the extraordinary step of invoking a compulsory acquisition process.
For Mr Barnett, the logic of his actions is clear.
“Developing gas from the Browse Basin is critical for the development of this state, this nation and its indigenous people,” he said.
“Economic independence and real opportunity is the best way towards self-determination for Aboriginal people and goes a long way towards reconciliation.”
For KLC chief Wayne Bergmann, and other indigenous leaders, the economics has taken a back seat.
“This is a game changer. There may not be a project because the premier has compromised the integrity and goodwill,” he said.
The danger is that the competing sides may proceed to debate the project against totally different criteria.
The challenge for the government is to lay out the criteria and the process for all projects, whether they be gas hubs or coal mines, so that none are prejudged unfairly.