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Woodside LNG project approval deemed unlawful

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A West Australian court has declared the state government’s environmental approval of a multi-billion dollar gas hub in the Kimberley as unlawful.

Chief Justice Wayne Martin handed his decision on oil and gas giant Woodside’s James Price Point yesterday, The Australian reported.

This is one more blow for the troubled onshore gas hub after Woodside said earlier this year it would contemplate processing Browse Basin gas on an offshore vessel.

The company and Federal Resources Minister Gary Gray had advocated for the removal of the current Browse lease conditions, which insist the Browse gasfield must be developed onshore at James Price Point.

Gray wanted the removal of any conditions from federal leases covering the Browse permits, which would allow for a floating facility to be built.

But WA Premier Colin Barnett has vehemently opposed the idea and is pushing for a land-based gas hub, saying floating LNG would result in fewer jobs and gas supplies for Australia.

In April, Barnett apologised to the traditional indigenous owners of James Price Point and said the $1.5 billion benefits package negotiated with traditional owners would only materialise if the Browse joint venture partners brought gas onshore for processing at James Price Point.

Woodside confirmed in April it was looking to expand its Brownse LNG project with a floating gas processing operation.

It caused bitter conflict when it decided to abandon its $40 billion Browse LNG project in favour of floating LNG technology in offshore processing plants.

The WA government obtained the land and said it would keep the area for projects in the future.

The Wilderness Society, and Goolarabooloo elder Richard Hunter, contended conflicts of interest were present in the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) assessment procedure, which meant only one EPA member, chairman Paul Vogel handed down  the final verdict.

Furthermore, they said former environment minister Bill Marmion should not have given approval when there were conflicts of interest.

Chief Justice Martin concurred with the arguments.

“The minister’s statement that the Browse LNG Precinct proposal could be implemented subject to conditions was not a valid exercise of the powers conferred upon the minister,” the judgement said.

The verdict could essentially mean the environmental approval procedure for the Browse project has to begin from square one, which could go on for years.

Indigenous elders said their community felt betrayed when Woodside pulled out of the LNG project at Browse, with Jabirr Jabirr traditional owner Rita Augustine saying she was “really hurt” the company pulled out for commercial reasons.

The company had hitherto paid $3.7 million to Aboriginal organisations as part of its deal.

The WA government can appeal the verdict but the Wilderness Society said it would follow up with a cross-appeal.

WA’s environment minister Albert Jacob said the verdict is still sinking in and the government will consult with the State Solicitor’s Office before taking the next step.

Woodside was close to submitting a commerciality report that would justify its move to pull out of the gas hub development at James Price Point.

The report was to include the forecast development costs and the company was expected to use it shore up its case that the government agree to a variation of the Browse retention lease conditions.

The project would have cost $45 billion.

Peter Robertson from The Wilderness Society said the onshore venture is now “dead and buried”.

“Premier Colin Barnett must face facts, drop this unhealthy obsession,” Robertson said.

Roberston has asked Vogel and Marmion to hand in their resignations for their role.

“I believe Mr Vogel made a fatal error and his position as chairman of the EPA should be brought into question,” Robertson said.

“I would say the same thing about the minister – he was told at the time this decision was likely to be unlawful and he ignored that, and that is on his head.”

Hunter was pleased with what the verdict means for the land’s traditional owners.

“Our people are strong – we won’t be bullied into a corner by the government,” he said.

Environmentalists showed disgust at the WA Government’s decision to let Woodside work on an Aboriginal site of “major” heritage significance earlier this year.

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