The future of a massive gas refinery set to be built on a pristine stretch of coast in north-west Australia is in doubt after a court declared government moves to compulsorily acquire the land illegal and Aboriginal leaders revealed the site was used for cultural ceremonies.
Woodside Petroleum, the country's biggest oil and gas company, wants to build the gas processing plant and port facility at James Price Point, 30 miles north of the small town of Broome. Earlier this year, traditional landowners agreed to drop a long-standing claim over the site in exchange for a A$1.3bn (£850m) package of jobs and compensation.
However, the deal was reached only after the Western Australian government took steps to compulsorily acquire the land, in the Kimberley region. A breakaway group of indigenous owners mounted a legal challenge in the Supreme Court, which yesterday ruled in their favour.
While that judgment was based on a technicality, which the state government can get around by re-starting the process, dissident landowners are preparing to go back to court to argue that the proposed development contravenes laws protecting Aboriginal heritage sites.
Joseph Roe, a member of the Goolarabooloo group, told ABC Radio that James Price Point was "a special place... for me and my people" because a songline – a track followed by ancestral spirits during the "Dreamtime""creation era – passed through it. Mr Roe said initiations of young men and other cultural ceremonies, known as "secret men's business", took place there.
Andrew Chalk, one of the lawyers involved in the case, claimed Woodside had known for years about the site's significance.
Its plan to process gas from a huge offshore field at James Price Point has been bitterly criticised by environmentalists and Broome residents. The Kimberley coastline is considered a wilderness area rich in biodiversity, and has been ranked alongside the Arctic and Antarctic in terms of minimal human impact.
The judgment was based on the government's failure to specify exactly what land it wants to acquire, and the court made clear there was nothing to prevent it recommencing the procedure.
The state premier, Colin Barnett, who has been pushing for the gas refinery, said afterwards: "It doesn't mean a great deal. It won't hold up the development."