Australia’s most polluting project begins approvals ‘by stealth’
LNG giant Woodside is gaining approvals for its Burrup Hub project “by stealth” by splitting it into seven individual proposals which obscure total greenhouse gas emissions, according to environmental advocates.
The Conservation Council of WA labelled it “a case study on how fossil fuel companies are gaming the environmental approvals process to avoid public scrutiny of their impacts”.
Its analysis released last week, based on public documents, reveal the Burrup Hub represents almost 20 million tonnes of additional greenhouse gas emissions per year.
It estimates emissions from burning the fuel overseas at 80 million tonnes per year; a total which would make the Burrup Hub Australia’s biggest polluting facility with quadruple the emissions of Queensland’s Adani project.
This does not factor in Woodside’s announcement last week that the Scarborough field was 50 per cent bigger than originally estimated.
The council said with the Browse field anticipated to last until 2070, the Burrup Hub vision contravened Paris Agreement targets and the state’s aspiration of net-zero emissions by 2050.
Woodside intends to use the Burrup Hub to “process more gas than the entire volume extracted from the NWS since startup in 1984”.
It said the Hub was “more ambitious than the combination of mega-projects that comprise Scarborough and Browse.”
But the Burrub Hup is being broken down into seven to nine different proposals – depending on how you count them – to be individually considered by three different authorities.
Some aspects are onshore, some offshore, some in state and some Commonwealth waters.
Approval for the first proposal is imminent and suggests these authorities will not be considering the impacts of the whole.
The Pluto-North West Shelf connector would be a 3.3-kilometre buried steel pipeline on the Burrup Peninsula, connecting the Pluto and North West Shelf gas plants.
While the pipe itself would have minimal environmental impact, it is the first of the interconnected parts that would enable the Burrup Hub vision, allowing the Pluto and North West Shelf plants to process gas not just from the two fields they are already connected to, but also from Scarborough and Browse.
CCWA appealed the state Environmental Protection Authority’s recommendation for approval, saying it should have to consider cumulative greenhouse gas emissions of the entire hub, over the lifetime of the new fields, in approving any part of the Burrup Hub.
But the EPA’s appeals convenor recommended Environment Minister Stephen Dawson dismiss the appeal, which he did.
The argument was that only the gas plants’ annual emissions were relevant, not the increased number of years that gas would be coming through them.
CCWA believes this is “grossly misleading”. Their analogy is that smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for one year has a very different impact than smoking a pack a day for 10 years.
“The huge new gas fields Woodside plans to bring online would extend highly polluting LNG processing for decades, releasing hundreds of millions of tons of additional pollution until at least 2070 – well past the date when the Paris Agreement requires net-zero emissions to be achieved globally,” CCWA director Piers Verstegen said.
The appeals convenor had said the EPA would take into account greenhouse gas emissions during its assessments of other projects in the region.
“The EPA have suggested to us that they have no choice but to assess the individual project elements as they have been described by Woodside, and have no powers to compel a more strategic assessment with a broader scope,” Mr Verstegen said.
“We have a very different view. It cannot be the case that the EPA and Minister has no powers to properly assess the climate impacts of one of the world’s most polluting fossil fuel projects.
“This is a scandal – Australia’s most polluting project being approved bit by bit without any assessment of the total greenhouse gas emissions.”
Mr Verstegen said while breaking the Burrup Hub vision into numerous components might generate an impression of progress to shareholders, it was a high-risk strategy.
“Any resulting approvals will be vulnerable to legal challenge and there is clearly a strong appetite for that among the community and environment groups,” he said.
An Enviromental Protection Authority spokeswoman said it was looking at all aspects of Burrup Hub projects in a “holistic manner”.
As an example, she said, in December 2018 the EPA determined that the component of Woodside’s proposal to process the Browse gas at the North West Shelf plant until 2070 required a full public assessment.
The environmental scoping document [containing the greenhouse gas emissions of that portion of the Hub] had been open for a two-week public review period in June and the environmental review document would be open for a six-week public review period.
The EPA has identified air quality as a key factor and required Woodside to disclose both direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and develop a management plan.
The spokeswoman said the EPA had also initiated a study to quantify cumulative air emissions from existing and proposed industries, and to predict pollutants in different scenarios.
The results would inform future assessments of industrial development proposals within the area, the Murujuga Rock Art Monitoring Program and the establishment of a Murujuga Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Network. Findings would be made public in mid-2020.
A Woodside spokeswoman referred WAtoday to the company’s response from last week, in which it called the CCWA analysis misleading and wrong. She declined to contest the figures in any specific detail.
Woodside’s response last week also said it would address the state government’s requirement for companies to outline their efforts to reach the net zero at 2050 target during the approvals process, with public comment phases expected to commence soon.
It said Woodside’s projects would comply with emissions limits set by its agreements with government authorities which would ensure Australia met its Paris Agreement targets.
Woodside being able to pull off the Burrup Hub depends not only on approvals but also on investment decisions as the hub involves several joint ventures with different partners including Shell, BP, BHP and Chevron.
Woodside is yet to secure a deal for Browse with partners Shell, BP, Japan Australia LNG and PetroChina.