Broome: Dubai Down Under

The far north-west of Australia is a sparsely populated oasis where ancient Aboriginal beliefs still prevail. The trouble is, there's gas there – and developers who want to turn it into a new Emirate. Kathy Marks reports from Broome

The small, remote town of Broome in Australia's far north-west is known for its pearl diving history, unique ethnic mix and stunning sunsets over the Indian Ocean. But with the country's largest gas refinery set to be built on its doorstep, townsfolk fear a revenue-hungry state government is planning to turn Broome into the next Dubai.

The proposed plant – which would process gas from a massive offshore field – has horrified environmentalists, and sown bitter divisions among indigenous locals. While traditional owners have agreed to give up their land in exchange for an A$1.3bn (£814m) package offered by Australia's biggest oil and gas company, Woodside Petroleum, the deal was only struck after they were threatened with compulsory acquisition by the Western Australian government.

A vocal minority have denounced the A$30bn refinery, which they say will rupture their "songlines" – the tracks followed by their ancestors during the "Dreamtime" creation era – as well as destroying important cultural and archaeological sites. So inflamed are passions that supporters of the project have been branded "toxic coconuts...black on the outside, white on the inside and full of the milk of white man's money" in an anonymous newsletter circulating in Broome.

The designated location for the plant – and an enormous new port complex – is James Price Point, 30 miles north of Broome, on a stretch of coastline so pristine that a 2008 scientific paper ranked it alongside the Arctic and Antarctica in terms of minimal human impact. The Point also shelters 130 million-year-old dinosaur footprints, embedded in rocks near the shoreline, and is a place where humpback whales calve and dolphins, turtles and dugong (native sea cows) feed.

"It's like putting a coal terminal on the Great Barrier Reef," says Martin Pritchard, executive director of the Environs Kimberley group. "They're turning a wilderness into an industrial zone. If this was happening on the [heavily populated] east coast, there would be such an outcry it would never be allowed to go ahead."

Locals are concerned the project could herald wide-scale industrialisation of the vast, largely untouched Kimberley region of which Broome is a main hub. Their anxiety has been fuelled by the state premier, Colin Barnett, who suggested the area could "learn something from" Dubai's success in attracting people to live in a harsh desert environment.

At James Price Point, which lies at the end of a corrugated dirt track, rust-red cliffs tumble down to a milk-white beach lapped by turquoise waters. "This is my country, this is paradise," declares Phillip Roe, one of the traditional owners opposed to the refinery, standing on a dune overlooking the Point. "Now it's going to be wrecked, and our songlines will be broken. The people who have sold out don't care about [Aboriginal] law and culture."

Out to sea, a drilling rig is already at work. The gas project will consume 20 square miles of seabed and 12 square miles of land. Mr Roe stoops down and picks up a sliver of flint from the sand. "An old spearhead. This area is all old campsites and middens."

At the turn-off to the Point, posters proclaim: "No Gas on the Kimberley Coast". Protesters have camped out here for months, obstructing Woodside workers and security staff. In July, a blockade was broken up by 80 riot police flown in from Perth, the state capital.

The plant will produce 50 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) a year, more than a facility in Qatar that claims to be the world's largest. If approved by the federal government – a decision is expected in the coming months – it will help Australia achieve its aim of becoming the biggest LNG exporter by 2020.

South of the Kimberley is the Pilbara region, heartland of the nation's mining industry and an object lesson in what many in the Kimberley wish to avoid. Multinational mining companies have taken over the Pilbara's towns; rents and wages have skyrocketed, motels are booked solid and the tourism industry struggles to survive. The coastline, far from being a wilderness, has the country's busiest ports.

Locals fear that Broome – home to 16,000 people, and a popular visitor destination with a leisurely pace and a laid-back vibe – could go the same way. They distrust Mr Barnett. "There's no mistaking what his intentions are for Broome, and it's not what the local population wants," says Kandy Curran, a long-time resident, and coordinator of a coastal management group.

Ms Curran adds: "It takes many years to create a harmonious town with a strong social fabric, but it doesn't take long to unravel it. This gas development will destroy our unique tourism brand and have a major impact on our town. Colin Barnett thinks he can force it on Broome; he thinks he'll get away with it because we're so remote." Ominously, Mr Barnett has predicted the Kimberley will underpin Western Australia's development over the next 50 years, just as the Pilbara has underpinned it since the 1960s. Rich reserves of copper, lead, nickel, zinc, bauxite and coal are thought to lie beneath the Kimberley's red dirt. Only five mines operate at present, but 700 applications for exploration licences were submitted last year.

The campaign against the gas plant is backed by a number of Australian celebrities, including the singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, who donated the royalties from a 2009 EP, Rob Hirst, the former Midnight Oil drummer, and the musician John Butler.

Ranged against them are respected Aboriginal leaders such as Nolan Hunter, chief executive of the Kimberley Land Council, which represents traditional owners. Mr Hunter believes that critics of the refinery, many of whom live in the cities, are ignoring the grim statistics – relating to housing, health, unemployment and youth suicide – that sum up life for Kimberley indigenous people.

"They've got their homes and their good jobs and everything they need for their creature comforts," he says. "They want this place to be pristine, even if the people here are living in poverty, so they can come in with their well-earned dollars and admire the pristine environment."

Mr Hunter, who has received hate mail, also condemns "the paternalistic attitude of some people who think Aboriginal people can't make decisions in their own right". Of the landowners' decision to renounce a long-standing claim over James Price Point, he says: "It was not made flippantly or recklessly. There was a three-year consultation process. They saw it as an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring about better outcomes for themselves."

The deal with Woodside, the biggest ever negotiated between a mining company and an Aboriginal group, would see jobs created, houses built and training programmes and health initiatives established. It has survived three Federal Court challenges by dissident landowners. A case brought by Mr Roe against the compulsory acquisition threat – which Mr Hunter admits "forced the hand" of those who voted in favour – has yet to be heard.

Mr Pritchard warns that if the refinery is built, some of the world's largest ships will visit the Kimberley to collect LNG and transport it to Asia. Instead of processing the gas near Broome, he suggests, Woodside should pipe it down to the Pilbara, where locals have said they would welcome a plant.

The federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, recently listed a chunk of the Kimberley on the National Heritage register, leaving out James Price Point apart from the dinosaur footprints. However, the listing will not prevent major industrial developments in the region. Mr Roe travels to the Point every day to protest. "We're not giving up," he says.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
News
news
News
Sir James Dyson: 'Students must be inspired to take up the challenge of engineering'
i100
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Negotiator - OTE £24,000

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An enthusiastic individual is r...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - West Midlands - OTE £35,000

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - Yorkshire & Humber - OTE £35,000

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Embedded Linux Engineer - C / C++

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A well funded smart home compan...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?