Woodside: Whales Do Not Breed In These Waters. Memo To Calving Whales: You Are Not Here.
By Mike SeccombeAugust 16, 2012
Woodside abandoned plans for a giant gas hub at James Price Point on Friday, citing concerns about the project’s commercial viability. The Global Mail visited the Kimberley Coast last August, when the battle between the company and environmentalists was raging, in search of whales Woodside say don’t exist, and the truth about the controversial $45 billion dollar plan.
It's just before midday on August 8, and the smooth turquoise waters of the Kimberley Coast are suddenly roiled. A gust of vapour shoots into the air and the black back of a whale arcs briefly above the surface and then disappears.
This whale is part of the biggest migration of humpbacks on the planet, in which thousands of animals head north from the Antarctic and up the West Australian coast to breed, before heading south again to feed during the southern summer.
To be frank, this particular sighting is almost a ho-hum event, compared with the more impressive whale behaviour we've seen over the previous four hours or so. We've seen mothers with calves. We've seen whales breaching spectacularly — 40 tonnes or so of cetacean all but airborne — alongside the ship. We've seen males churning the water to foam as they battle for breeding rights. We've seen whales standing on their heads in the water, slapping their tails loudly on the surface for minutes at a time. We've watched them lazily checking out an intrepid couple in a kayak. And apparently waving goodbye with their tails. What we've seen could fill a National Geographic photo essay on whale behaviour.
So the less-than-spectacular surfacing of this one particular whale is not so notable, except in one way: its location.
I check with the crew on the bridge of the Sea Shepherd protest vessel Steve Irwin, on which we are passengers. We are exactly 1.44 nautical miles — 2.67 km — off James Price Point, where Woodside Energy and its joint venture partners plan to build a giant new hub to process gas flowing from offshore wells in the Browse Basin, 350 km to the north.
This whale is about halfway between us and the proposed development site. Its proximity to shore makes it the animal which most definitively contradicts the evidence assembled by Woodside to argue that the whales will not be troubled by the biggest gas plant in the world and the supertankers that attend it.
According to Woodside, that whale really shouldn't be there. According to the company, "the most significant humpback whale study ever undertaken in Western Australia" found that "off James Price Point, the bulk of the migration occurs in waters approximately 30 km from the mainland, with less than five per cent of humpback whales travelling within eight km of the coast".
This finding was adopted in the recently released report of the state's Environment Protection Authority, essentially a one-man affair produced by EPA director Paul Vogel, after the other four members ruled themselves out due to conflicts of interest. Vogel eventually gave the go-ahead in July, but he made the development of James Price Point subject to 29 conditions, which you can read here.
Woodside's whale survey, conducted in 2009, found 5,000 adult humpback whales and 430 calves passed through the area from July to mid-October — not stopping to rest or breed, just swimming through, way offshore.
Clearly, this whale has not read the script. Nor have the 110 others we count over about eight hours that day, not quite so close to shore, but all certainly closer than 30 km, and most closer than 8 km.
On Woodside's numbers only about 270 whales would swim that near to shore during the entire migration season; that's fewer than three a day, on average, passing through.
And we see 110 in one day. Even allowing for the possibility that we're counting some whales multiple times, that's a big discrepancy.
What's more, a shore-based observatory, set up at the point by opponents of the development and co-ordinated by a marine biologist, Maddie Goddard, has counted almost 1,500 whales within 8 km of the shore between July 1 and August 9.
Then there is Woodside's claim that humpbacks do not breed in the area, which is flatly contradicted by the Sea Shepherd crew and by former Greens leader Bob Brown, who is also aboard the Steve Irwin this day. Brown says that the area off James Price Point is the biggest humpback nursery in the world.
Questioned about this, Sea Shepherd's onboard whale expert, Beck Straussner, concedes it's a dubious claim — there has not yet been enough scientific study to definitively call the area the biggest in the world. But the Woodside claim is certainly untrue, he says. You can tell recently born calves because their dorsal fins, laid flat for birth, take a few days to become fully erect. And there are large numbers of such newborns apparent near the Woodside development. Ergo, they were born there.
As a non-expert witness, I can't tell you where those calves were born; all I can tell you is there are lots of baby whales visible on this day, right where Woodside said they would not be.
We also see quite a bit of furious thrashing in the water, involving pairs of whales, rather further out from shore than the mothers and calves. Straussner asserts this is competitive male breeding behaviour — a further indication that the humpbacks are not just passing through, as claimed by the developers, but are using the area as a breeding ground.
When we put these observations to Woodside, the company responds with a statement saying independent research had shown Camden Sound, 350 km north of James Price Point was the main calving and nursing ground. The statement also says the humpbacks swim past large ports at Fremantle, Dampier and Port Hedland and that the environmental impacts of its proposal could be "minimised and managed effectively".
There have been doubts cast on the science behind the company's — and the state's — environmental assessment as it applies to other vulnerable life forms, too, such as dolphins, dugongs, turtles, fish stocks, et cetera, notably by Murdoch University's Cetacean Research Unit, in a submission of appeal against the EPA report.
But the focus of the Sea Shepherd trip is whales — photogenic megafauna makes for a good media campaign. And quite a slick campaign it is. The 59-metre Steve Irwin, flagship of the Sea Shepherd fleet — more usually featured in the media while jousting with Japanese whalers in the Antarctic — is doing daily whale-watch tours, with the likes of Bob Brown, current Greens Leader Christine Milne, and the anti-James Price businessman Geoffrey Cousins there to preach the gospel of conservation to the media on board.
Passengers are picked up from the end of Cable Beach in high-powered inflatables and whisked out to the mother ship for the 60 km trip up the coast to James Price. Once there, there are further trips offered on the inflatables for close up whale viewing, and the ship's helicopter makes repeated sorties with photographers for aerial views of the creatures and the development site. The Sea Shepherd people have their own media crew as well, filming, editing and pumping out the propaganda from their MacBooks in pretty close to real time.
And they've been getting good press out of it, too — even in the Murdoch papers — for the simple reason that Woodside's claims about whale numbers are so blindingly, obviously, wrong even to the lay observer.
Perhaps the key alliance here is that of Bob Brown and Geoffrey Cousins. Cousins the cunning businessman recently described in a Sydney Morning Herald profile as a "corporate assassin" and Brown, the benign face of the green movement, veteran of every environmental battle since the Franklin, brilliant media performer. Together, they took down Gunns, the most powerful company in Tasmania, and its planned billion-dollar pulp mill in the Tamar Valley. (The Global Mail founder Graeme Wood also was involved in the battle with Gunns.) But this is a much larger target; the latest estimates of this project put its cost at $45 billion.
The scale of the proposal is immense. The site covers 30 square km on land and another 10 square km at sea. It would sit at the end of a 350 km pipeline from the gas fields, and have a processing capacity of 350 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas per year.
There would be storage tanks for 280,000 cubic metres of natural gas and another 300,000 cubic metres of condensate.
In order to get the supertankers in to the plant, the proponents plan to dredge an astonishing 34 million cubic metres of material from the seabed to make a long channel for the tankers to get in and out. That's enough dredge spoil to cover the entire City of Sydney local government area to a depth of 1.3 metres. There would also be a jetty protruding as much as 3 km out from shore, not to mention a "6,000 bed, fully self-contained accommodation facility, including a wide range of amenities, for both the construction and operations workers". According to the critics, the plant would produce a claimed 15 million tonnes of climate changing carbon dioxide each year.
This is what the development's opponents are taking on.
But their message is not an absolutist one. Much as the conservationists might prefer to put the kybosh on the gas project completely, that is not their argument.
Their argument is that the gas should be processed 800 km further down the coast, in the Pilbara, where much of the necessary infrastructure already exists and where the environment has already been scarred by development.
And as time goes by, it's looking a more and more likely outcome.
That's because the inconveniently located whales are only one of many problems bedevilling the James Price Point project. There are major problems with land tenure at the site. It is unpopular with a large segment of the local community. And the biggest problem of all is that financially, the current proposal looks to be a dud.
Before we get to that, though, a little history, to explain what's driving the whole thing.
"The fact is the whole Woodside development is really a Trojan horse," says Mark Jones, director of the Save the Kimberley group.
The state and federal governments don't care about the profitability of the Woodside joint venture nearly as much as they care about what it will provide: a new port in the north-west.
As evidence, Jones points back to a report in 2005,Developing the West Kimberley's Resources, prepared for the Western Australian Department of Industry and Resources, under the former state Labor government.
That report argues that for the further development of the northwest, a way has to be found to export all the various mineral resources of the Kimberley — not just gas, but "significant deposits of other minerals and energy sources," including diamonds, iron ore, copper, lead, zinc, silver, nickel, uranium, coal, tin, mineral sands and on-shore petroleum.
The report also notes the likelihood of "considerable difficulties and costs — especially for the first developers", and recommends the government be ready to lend a helping hand.
"The Kimberley in the last 10 years has gone from about 20 per cent [mining] tenements to about 95 per cent. It's all pegged, ready to go. They just need the port," says Jones. "The recommendation of that report was for a medium-sized port, preferably out of the Dampier Peninsula," he says.
And so when the Woodside joint venture came along, it was seen by governments, both state and federal, as the means of achieving that goal. Right from the start, says Jones, the pressure was on.
So to the problems, so threatening to the hopes of WA Premier Colin Barnett and Federal Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson.
First problem: getting the land.
James Price Point is Crown land over which there is a long-standing registered native-title claim, jointly made by the Goolarabooloo and Jabirr Jabirr people. The trouble is, there has been something of a falling out between the groups. Thus separate claims now have been lodged, although they cannot be registered because they overlap with the previous joint claim. Another group, the Yawuru people, have a claim over adjoining land and also oppose the development, from concern about its effect on them. There are complex interrelationships between the three groups. In short, the tenure situation is something of a dog's breakfast.
The state government tried to negotiate an access agreement with all three groups, but failed. So in September 2009 it began a process of compulsory acquisition of native title rights, to enable the project to proceed. To cut a very long story short, in June 2011 the state, Woodside and the majority Jabirr Jabirr group signed an agreement giving access to the land. There was a suite of agreements providing benefits to them and to the broader Kimberley Aboriginal community, worth some $1.5 billion over 30 years.
But that was challenged, by two men from the out-groups. And in December last year, the Supreme Court ruled the compulsory acquisition process invalid.
As a result the state had to start over, which it did in March this year.
In the meantime, however, development has proceeded as though the deal was valid. Further legal action is likely within the next couple of months.
Not coincidentally, there are Goolarabooloo and Yawuru people on the Sea Shepherd the day we go out, there to make the point that there is substantial indigenous opposition.
One of them, Jub Clerc, sums it up in a few words Bob Brown might envy for their succinct emotiveness: "My need for country is greater than my need for a plasma TV." As for the money, earmarked for Aboriginal health, education and other social benefits — one of the Gooloobaroo men aboard, Jason Roe, queries why Aboriginal people should not have access to those things in equal measure to other Australians, without having to trade their land rights to developers.
The Aboriginal supporters of the development have a point, though. As one of them, Rita Augustine, put it in a strong letter to Brown, it was all very well to say those things should be the natural right of all Australians, but "look at the last 200 years and tell me if that has worked".
In the meantime, Kimberley Aborigines too often lived lives of despair and hopelessness. They had one of the highest suicide rates in Australia. Thus they had taken the hard decision to take control of their own destiny and support the gas development. A democratic decision had been taken, she said.
But the bottom line is, the discord between the native title claimants is far from resolved.
Second problem: local opposition.
The Broome economy is heavily dependent on tourism. Locals boast that Cable Beach is one of the world's top five beaches. There is concern — fanned by conservationists — that the massive dredging program and construction of port facilities will damage the beach.
Then there is the issue of the impact of large numbers of project workers and company security contractors on the town's laid-back lifestyle.
Like the Aboriginal community, the town is split. At the Broome Shire Council elections last October, three new councillors were voted in after campaigning against the James Price Point development. The outcome not only gave the council a majority indigenous membership for the first time, it left it evenly split on the gas development: four in favour, four against, and one considered more or less neutral.
One of those newly elected anti-development indigenous members, deputy shire president Anne Poelina, also is aboard the Steve Irwin the day we go out, also singing from the same song sheet as Brown and Cousins. "We're not saying 'no' to gas, but 'yes' to alternatives to James Price Point," she says.
The divisions are obviously deeply felt. Jub Clerc says the indigenous communities are trying to keep their disagreements polite; the same is not always true of the wider community.
Some indication of this can be got from an incident involving Mike Bowers, TheGlobal Mail's photographer, who found a cafe selling coffees stencilled 'No Gas' in powdered chocolate. He bought one, took it outside to photograph it, and was assailed by a bloke in a fluoro vest: "Fuckin' greenie".
In May, on the Mother's Day weekend, the state government sent 250 extra police to confront protesters on the road to the site. There was violence. The same shop that sells the no gas coffee has in its window a picture of police manhandling a demonstrator, with the caption "How did it come to this?" and the suggestion "call your local elected representative and ask". The phone numbers of local MPs and councillors are appended.
Private security firms — one ironically named Hostile Environment Services — are an ominous presence.
Anti-development protesters also use the language of hostility; they call the smaller of their camps, on the road into the site where the main protest camp is, the "forward command post". They maintain a network of spies to inform them of the movement of company equipment.
But the big problem is the economic one. It's not just half the population of Broome, 40 per cent of the Aboriginal land claimants, Bob Brown, Geoffrey Cousins and the conservation groups who suggest the development would more logically go elsewhere, and point to government as the main impediment to economic good sense. It's also the market analysts. JP Morgan, for example, in late 2009 noted the government, in renewing the licences for the Browse gas had been "quite interventionist" in the affairs of the joint venture, inserting "wording in its licence renewal document [which] does not appear to give the JV [joint venture] partners any choice" other than James Price Point. This was despite the fact that the site "is not a clear winner for all parties".
In January this year, Macquarie Bank took a detailed look over what it called "WPL's struggling Browse project" and noted "in 2004, WPL was targeting a Browse start-up in 2011 — today however this looks unlikely before 2019 at the earliest, meaning the project is apparently no nearer first production today than it was eight years ago.
"What's more," Macquarie went on, "coordinated community opposition to a James Price Point development, the State's apparently unlawful acquisition of land here, the continued lack of JV unity and the huge development bottleneck ahead all mean Browse remains some way off yet". Macquarie noted parenthetically: "indeed it sometimes appears that the WA government wants to see this project succeed more than the JV."
Only last month Citibank also looked at the deteriorating numbers and concluded it would be economically better all round for the gas to be piped south.
Mark Jones says he gives particular weight to the Citibank analysis. Its author, Mark Greenwood, and Citibank were the agents for Mitsibushi and Mitsui when they bought 14.7 per cent of Browse. "So he would be as familiar with the numbers as anybody." And Greenwood's conclusion?
"He said it was $15 billion cheaper to pipe the gas to the Burrup [the Pilbara site], and that James Price Point would realise an 11.4 per cent return on capital and Browse to Burrup would realise 15.3 per cent," says Jones.
So what else remains to be said about this ill-starred project, which essentially has been foisted on the joint venturers by the West Australian and federal governments?
Well, Woodside says it is proceeding to evaluate "all tender bids for the onshore and offshore infrastructure … to determine project costs and economics.
"Until the bids have been evaluated for all of those tender packages, a final cost of the development cannot be determined. Our clear goal is to make sure we get the cost and schedule right and take this project in its current location at James Price Point through to a final investment decision in the first half of 2013," it says.
Finally, there is a report by the Australia Institute, released on August 9, re-examining the the West Australian government's own assessment of the project. It notes that between 90 and 97 per cent of the workforce would be fly-in-fly-out and thus would bring little direct benefit to the town or the region.
"The same assessment also states that during the construction phase the large workforce will use community services such as health and police, yet acknowledges that these services are currently under resourced and the additional demand placed on them by construction workers will see them further degraded," the institute says.
The project would lead to a reduction in employment in tourism, drive up the cost of living and housing in Broome, and have a significant adverse impact on the state budget because the government was "likely to spend more money supporting the project than it will collect in state taxes".
In summary, it says: "The evidence to support the state government's claim that the precinct will deliver economic benefits is virtually non-existent."
The WA government and Woodside — under pressure from the government — of course would deny this.
But they also deny the presence of all those whales. They have form for denying the obvious.
Graeme Wood, who is the founding philanthropist funding The Global Mail, has donated to the Sea Shepherd.