It is 3,000 kilometres from the Great Barrier Reef, but according to a Federal Court challenge mounted by conservationists, a gas project in Western Australia could have disastrous impacts on Queensland’s embattled World Heritage site.
- Woodside Energy’s Scarborough gas project has cleared major state and Commonwealth regulatory hurdles
- The Australian Conservation Foundation says it also needs approval from the Environment Minister
- Woodside says it will “vigorously defend” its position against the court challenge
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has applied for an injunction against Woodside’s Scarborough gas project, asking that it be halted until new federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has assessed whether the operation will damage the Great Barrier Reef by exacerbating climate change.
ACF boss Kelly O’Shanassy said the west coast project posed a major risk to Australia’s precious World Heritage site.
“People in Australia would be shocked to know that the Scarborough gas mine that is proposed has never been approved under Australia’s environmental law or assessed for the impact that [it] will have on places like the Great Barrier Reef,” Ms O’Shanassy said.
“It’s a really, really big carbon bomb.”
Woodside said gas produced by the project would generate enough electricity to power 10 times the number of homes in Perth, and it would do that with emissions of about half of what would be generated by coal.
In a statement, Woodside CEO Meg O’Neill said:
“The Scarborough Project has been the subject of rigorous environmental assessments by a range of regulators.
“The project will deliver significant local and national benefits in the form of employment, tax revenue and reliable gas supply in the energy transition for decades to come.
“Woodside will vigorously defend its position in these proceedings.”
According to the documents filed to the court, predicted emissions from the project would cause global temperatures to rise by nearly 0.0004 degrees Celsius, “which will result in the deaths of millions of corals during each future mass bleaching event”.
ACF also argued that additional warming presented “a real risk” that could in turn trigger a spiral of further, runaway warming, which would all but destroy the Great Barrier Reef.
Any increased warming would result in additional death of coral on the Great Barrier Reef, Selina Ward, a coral reef scientist at the University of Queensland, said.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the University of Queensland agreed.
“We’re at a point now where every bit of carbon going into the atmosphere has a price and that price is growing by the day,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.
This year, the Great Barrier Reef experienced its sixth mass-bleaching event — a phenomenon driven by global warming, which was never observed prior to 1998.
Scientific arguments similar to those used by ACF were presented to the Federal Court by a group of young people trying to establish a duty of care on the environment minister to protect them from climate change.
At the time, then-environment minister Sussan Ley accepted the scientific arguments, instead disputing the legal implications of them — an argument she won on appeal.
A spokeswoman for Ms Plibersek said she was unable to comment on the legal challenge to Woodside’s Scarborough gas project because the case was before court.
But new Resources Minister Madeleine King has backed the project, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said the government will support fossil fuel projects that “stack up environmentally and then commercially”.
Woodside project not approved by minister
Woodside plans to open up the new Scarborough gas field, lay about 430km of gas pipes on the sea floor, and significantly expand existing liquefaction facilities, known as “Pluto”, near Karratha in Western Australia.
The project has received key environmental approvals from state and federal governments, and last year Woodside announced a final investment decision had been made to progress the project.
The federal environmental assessment was conducted by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), rather than the environment minister, under devolved powers given to the agency.
All offshore projects would normally undergo assessment by NOPSEMA.
However, projects likely to have a significant impact on the Great Barrier Reef cannot be assessed solely by NOPSEMA, and are required to undergo a full assessment by the environment minister.
As a result, the Environmental Defenders Office, on behalf of ACF, argued that if the project proceeded, it would do so without the required approvals.
Emissions ‘higher’ than claimed
According to Woodside, the project will create up to 3,200 jobs during construction and “nearly” 600 ongoing jobs.
But Bill Hare, a scientist from consultancy Climate Analytics, said emissions figures claimed by the company ignored emissions from the existing LNG facilities at the site.
He said the emissions would actually be about 40 per cent higher — nearly 1.4 billion tonnes.
Most of those emissions would occur when the gas was burned — much of which would occur overseas.
But according to Mr Hare, the project would contribute 41 million tonnes to Australia’s domestic emissions by 2030.
He said that was about 7 per cent of our 2005 emissions — the baseline Australia has now committed to cut emissions to 43 per cent below.
Woodside has said its estimate of 878 million tonnes of emissions is a figure that has been accepted by Australian regulators.