They kill it over and over, but it won’t die. Western Australia’s Premier Colin Barnett is hell-bent on developing the controversial gas hub at James Price Point north of Broome, even though no gas company seems interested in using it.

To avoid a repeat of the farcical approval process last time — during which three out of five EPA board members recused themselves due to conflicts of interest and ultimately failed in a Supreme Court challenge last August — three “cleanskin” independent delegates have been asked to reassess the Browse LNG precinct, whose proponent is the Premier and Minister for State Development.

Nobody appears to have a problem with the three delegates — chairman Gerard Early, Dr Tom Hatton and Glen McLeod. But what, exactly, are they being asked to assess? In February the WA government confirmed in Parliament the strategic proposal being assessed was the one referred to the EPA in 2008. At the end of July the delegates called for technical submissions by next Tuesday, September 9, based on the Strategic Assessment Report released for public review in late 2010, adding they had confirmed with the Department of State Development that the proposal remained the same.

But everything has changed since 2010. For starters, gas from the massive Browse basin is now going to be processed offshore on floating LNG platforms. James Price Point was simply too remote and expensive; estimates for the cost of developing an onshore LNG plant there doubled and tripled to a reported $80 billion, and Woodside abandoned the project in April last year.

Second, as work progressed on the James Price Point plan, it became clear major modifications were necessary to accommodate the big LNG tankers — particularly, more dredging and creation of an inland harbour. So the project proposed in 2010 has been superseded.

Thirdly, additional protection has been given to the west Kimberley since 2010, including national heritage listing of dinosaur footprints at James Price Point in 2011 and listing in 2013 of monsoon vine thickets there as an endangered species.

“James Price Point looms as another zombie fossil fuel project…”

On August 20 the Wilderness Society’s Peter Robertson wrote to the three delegates questioning the legality of the new assessment process. The letter, which has been seen by Crikey, questions whether there has been a proper referral to the EPA and points out that the previous work done on the 2010 strategic assessment report has already been found in court to be tainted.

The letter calls on the EPA to require the proponent to “put forward a genuine, up-to-date proposal, untainted by earlier, invalid EPA decisions and actions and require the Proponent to undertake the necessary environmental reviews to match and support that proposal — before it is opened up for public comment”.

The state government, which finally acquired the James Price Point site in November after two botched attempts, wants a “project-ready” LNG precinct approved there and points to the benefits for traditional owners. It says the acquisition triggered $30 million in funding for indigenous housing and economic development under the native title agreements reached with the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr claimant group.

The Premier’s spokesperson told Crikey those native title agreements “do allow for the establishment and operation of a supply base to support the activities of the Browse LNG precinct. There are a range of potential supply base sites in the Kimberley being considered by industry and Government. At present, no specific proposals have been lodged for use of the precinct.”

That’s an understatement. At last week’s profit result Woodside ruled out using James Price Point as a supply base for its floating Browse LNG development, pointing instead to Broome or Derby.

Barnett’s spokesperson cited prospective onshore unconventional oil and gas development, including the tight gas fracking program proposed by Buru Energy, which recently got approval for an exploration program targeting the Laurel formation in the Canning Basin. Buru would not comment to Crikey, but the company’s recent quarterly update confirmed its focus is on cost-cutting, laying off a third of its staff. The company’s share price has fallen from a peak of $3.70 to below a dollar, after oil flows from its Ungani oil field east of Broome proved disappointing.  It would be fair to say any demand from Buru for a massive gas hub at James Price Point is a long way off.

An exasperated Robertson told Crikey the latest Barnett proposal was “unbelievable,” almost certainly illegal, and the assessment and inevitable court challenge will be a complete waste of taxpayers money and further undermine confidence in the WA EPA. “How can the EPA be assessing a gas processing and export hub when the government is proposing a supply base?” he asked. “They are taking the EPA for absolute fools.”

James Price Point looms as another zombie fossil fuel project: uneconomic, risky, sustained only by desperate government backers from a bygone era. If only they would leave these things to the market.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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