February 2022

The Nation Reviewed

Songlines or pipelines in the Burrup?

By Jesse Noakes
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The largest new fossil-fuel project in Australia threatens the world’s most significant rock art

It’s Saturday afternoon in Karratha, an industrial town in Western Australia’s remote Pilbara region at the gateway to the biggest liquified natural gas hub in Australia. Drowsy in the November heat at the end of the dry season, a crowd of a few dozen gathers on the turf of the Karratha Quarter, the town’s main square.

Patrick Churnside, a Ngarluma traditional owner, calls out to acknowledge the ngurra, or country, while rattling two boomerangs against each other. Two handpainted sheets are laid out on the grass: one reading “Save Our Songlines” and the other “Save the Burrup”, both studded with yellow, black and red handprints.

It’s the first time the local community has rallied against industrial developments on the nearby Burrup Peninsula, or Murujuga, in more than a decade. “If you look and listen and learn, the country will show you,” Churnside explains, translating his Ngarluma introduction before a ute revving loudly behind the stage drowns out his words. Police cars, marked and unmarked, crawl past every few minutes.

The previous Monday, Woodside Energy had announced its decision to proceed with its $16 billion Scarborough gas project, the largest new fossil-fuel project in Australia. On Wednesday, three protesters drove 1500 kilometres from Perth and locked themselves to concrete barrels mounted in vehicles blockading the only road in and out of the peninsula.

On Friday, the day before the rally, the annual general meeting of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, which comprises five language groups of traditional owners with jurisdiction over the Burrup, collapsed in acrimony and was abandoned. It had been revealed that the MAC’s chief executive, Peter Jeffries, was negotiating with Woodside for a stake in the project.

Mardudhunera traditional owner Raelene Cooper, a member of the MAC’s board of directors and its former chairperson, doesn’t feel traditional owners have been properly consulted. “A lot of it has been concealed information,” she says, “and it’s been rush, rush, rush, and then we’re expected to make a decision.”

In response to several legal challenges to Scarborough’s environmental approvals in the WA Supreme Court, Premier Mark McGowan signalled his willingness to alter legislation to ensure Scarborough proceeds. “We can’t have scores of industries close down because of a court ruling, so the state government will do what it has to do to make sure industries stay open,” McGowan said, following Woodside’s announcement. “We want to keep the lights on and make sure our hospitals continue to function.”

The Scarborough project is vast. The gas field is 375 kilometres off the north-west coast of the Burrup, so will require running an undersea pipeline through or near protected marine parks and the Dampier archipelago, arguably the richest area of marine biodiversity in Western Australia. The gas will come ashore on the Burrup at Woodside’s Pluto LNG processing plant, which will more than double in size to accommodate the additional supply.

A report last year from The Australia Institute found that the expanded Pluto plant’s annual carbon emissions will also more than double to 4.4 million tonnes. That figure rises to potentially 9.2 million tonnes by 2026 for the Scarborough/Pluto development and its associated projects, when factoring in the emissions from domestic consumption of the gas, according to a second report by international research firm Climate Analytics. The increase is equivalent to around 11 per cent of Western Australia’s total emissions at their 2005 benchmark. Including all overseas emissions from the gas, Climate Analytics estimates that Scarborough/Pluto will emit about 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon over its 30-year lifetime, significantly larger than Adani’s Carmichael coal-mine. For its part, Woodside put the projected emissions at 878 million tonnes.

The Climate Analytics report concludes that the Scarborough project fails to meet Australia’s international climate obligations: “Woodside is asking its investors to bet against the successful implementation of the Paris Agreement. This, in turn, is a bet against the ­climate.”

But there is a more immediate threat.

Vast hills of red-brown boulders ridge the landscape throughout the peninsula, and many are engraved with intricate, ancient pictures.

“The rocks are not just pretty preschool drawings – they are a creation story,” explains Josie Alec, a Kuruma Mardudhunera traditional custodian and healer who organised the rally in Karratha. “For me, our ‘Save the Burrup’ campaign is about giving voice to the plants and animals, and protecting their songlines.”

Just past the turn-off for Hearson Cove beach is a boardwalk from where you can view an illustration of a fat-tailed kangaroo from before the last ice age next to a thylacine, then round a corner to see a three-masted ship marking first contact with Europeans. Rock art like this was engraved across the Burrup by thousands of generations of the Yaburara people until the majority were killed or driven from the area in a series of colonial massacres in 1868. What remains on the Burrup is likely the oldest and largest collection of rock art on Earth: at least a million petroglyphs, probably far more, and much older than the caves of Lascaux or other more celebrated sites.

For Benjamin Smith, a professor of world rock art at the University of Western Australia, the Burrup is “the most significant rock art place in the world”. He readily admits it’s a big claim, but he should know – he’s also the chair of the International Council on Monuments and Sites’ scientific committee on rock art, which advises UNESCO on World Heritage applications. He oversaw successful nominations last year for sites in Siberia and Saudi Arabia. “Both of those sites are remarkable,” Smith says, “but Murujuga is even more remarkable. There’s more rock art there, it’s older and it’s got the earliest depictions of the human face.”

The petroglyphs are at risk of being destroyed. Smith is the lead author on a recent paper that finds acidity levels on the rocks, caused by air pollution from industrial developments, are eroding their patina, the microscopic surface layer that gives the rocks their warm reddy-brown colour and into which the figures are carved.

Industry came to the Burrup in the 1960s with dredging of the port at Dampier for iron ore export, followed by the construction of the Karratha Gas Plant and other LNG facilities in the 1980s. Thousands of petroglyphs were destroyed or removed in the process, and later reports of around 150 pieces of rock art being removed for Woodside’s first Pluto LNG facility led to protests from traditional owners in the mid 2000s.

Clouds of yellow smog not only emanate from the nearby Yara fertiliser plant but also hang in low clouds over Woodside’s Karratha gas plant, documented in a series of photographs taken years apart that were submitted to WA’s Environmental Protection Authority in 2020. A subsequent EPA report into a proposed urea plant linked to the Pluto facility stated that the most significant sources of air emissions within the immediate Murujuga environment are Woodside’s Karratha and Pluto gas plants.

Smith says that the bulk of the acid pollution is coming from Woodside, but nitrous oxides coming out of Yara are new. “Nitrates … cause other things to grow on the rocks. The double whammy of industrial acids plus organic acids – it’s irreversible damage. Once that rock starts to be etched by the acids it can’t be undone.”

“Once you can see there’s a negative impact it’s too late,” agrees John Black, a former CSIRO biochemist and honorary research fellow at the University of Western Australia who has researched Burrup rock art since 2010. “You won’t get it back within a thousand years.”

Former Greens leader Christine Milne lobbied governments for years about World Heritage–listing the Burrup when she was vice-president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It would be Australia’s first such listing for an Indigenous cultural site. Milne points out that one of UNESCO’s criteria is to assess the degree of adverse effects from development or neglect. According to Milne, every new industrial development approval further jeopardises the integrity of the rock art, “therefore making its listing as World Heritage more difficult”.

The federal government finally applied to UNESCO for World Heritage listing of the Burrup in 2020, after the WA government commenced a nomination process in August 2018 in response to a long campaign by conservationists and traditional custodians. Even as the state government planned its application, the ABC reported that a confidential briefing note prepared for Mark McGowan warned it could jeopardise new industrial investment. “There may be a reluctance for new industries to locate on the Burrup Peninsula should World Heritage listing go ahead before companies have obtained key project approvals,” the note said.

Milne compares the behaviour of state and federal governments to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban: “the only difference is the speed of the destruction”.

Benjamin Smith agrees that World Heritage listing will be influenced by a range of environmental factors that include air, light and noise pollution. “If we get it right and the pollution is managed, that rock art will survive long, long, long after industry,” he says. “If the current pollution levels are maintained or increased, then the rock art will be destroyed before that industry burns out.”

That prospect clearly distresses Raelene Cooper. When she speaks at the Karratha rally, her voice is hoarse and she is close to tears at times. “You would never put a gas plant out on the Great Barrier Reef,” she says. “You’d never put a gas plant next to the Taj Mahal in India.”

She reserves her fury, however, for an agreement with the state government in 2003, signed by the Indigenous groups that later formed the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, which determined land use on the peninsula. The Burrup and Maitland Industrial Estates Agreement excised part of the land for industry, while granting the MAC freehold to a non-industrial zone on the provision it was to be jointly managed with the state government as a national park. The contention is over a “no objection” clause that some, including Cooper, have described as a gag preventing traditional owners from speaking out about any industrial development in the region.

Josie Alec calls it a “a green light for the government and the mining companies, and it’s a green light they put in there, nobody else. They put it in there to suit themselves.”

Woodside directs questions about the agreement to the WA government. A government spokesperson denies the clause is a gag, as it refers to development applications within the industrial zone and does not override the need for heritage approvals.

“When our old people signed that BMIEA agreement 20 years ago, they did not know what they were signing,” Cooper says. She describes her elders being told about “trains” – the industry term for the processing facilities at the gas plants – and says they understood it in the sense of railways, such as the trains that carry iron ore to port. “That’s what they thought – they’re gonna build a railway track or something. The BMIEA is null and void. It was deceitful.”

After the crowd gathers for photographs at the end of the anti-Scarborough rally, Cooper and Alec tell an interviewer that they demand an immediate pause on the project until traditional owners are consulted properly and can make informed decisions. “It’s time to speak up on behalf of our old people,” Cooper says. “They didn’t have a voice – but we do.”

Jesse Noakes

Jesse Noakes is a writer from Western Australia. He has written for Guardian Australia, the ABC, The Saturday Paper, Vice and elsewhere.

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