Woodside is set to make a final investment decision on a major LNG project in Western Australia’s north within weeks, but opponents are vowing to push on with their attempts to stop it.

Key points:

  • The project involves developing Woodside’s Scarborough gas field and expanding its Pluto facility
  • Conservationists are worried about the millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions it will emit annually
  • But Woodside says the project has been through rigorous environmental assessment processes

The project — which has been labelled Australia’s biggest new fossil fuel investment in nearly a decade — involves developing the Scarborough gas field, west of Karratha, and expanding its current Pluto facility on the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara, where the gas would go for processing.

If the project goes ahead, it is expected to emit millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually at a time when countries are being urged to decarbonise.

large pipe with gas plant infrastructure in the background

Woodside says it’s set a target for its expanded Pluto LNG facility to reach net zero emissions by 2050. (Supplied)

Woodside received an important financial boost this week, selling a 49 per cent stake in its $7.6 billion proposed second train at Pluto to New York-based Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP).

As the clock ticks on Woodside’s financial commitment to the project’s future, former WA Labor Premier turned Conservation Council President, Carmen Lawrence, has spoken out against the plan, fearing the environmental impacts it could cause.

“I don’t see how anyone living in Western Australia can ignore this because it adds to our emissions,” Dr Lawrence said.

Carmen Lawrence sitting at desk with computer showing image of gas platform

Dr Lawrence says she has serious concerns about the project.(ABC News: Nic Perpitch)

“Climate change is happening now, it’s real, it’s destructive and anything that adds to it, surely has to be questioned.”

Woodside’s chief executive Meg O’Neill received a fresh legal letter from the Conservation Council of WA last week, warning the project could have a negative impact on the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, on the other side of the country.

The ABC requested to interview Ms O’Neill, but she was unavailable all week.

A spokesperson for Woodside said the primary environmental approvals from both the Commonwealth and state governments were in place to support the final investment decision, but requests to start drilling were still being assessed by Australia’s offshore energy regulator.

“The development of Scarborough has been assessed by the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority, the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and the Australian National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority,” the spokesperson said.

“These environmental assessment processes concluded the proposal may be implemented, subject to conditions and activity-specific Environment Plans.”

Woodside’s cash boost news came just days after the global climate conference in Glasgow wrapped up, where world leaders agreed to work towards keeping temperature rises within 1.5C.

A key climate report released in August, produced by the world’s most authoritative body on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, calls for a stop to new oil, coal and gas exploration or infrastructure, given the Earth was heating faster than expected.

Bruce Robertson, sustainable energy analyst from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said Australia needed to “start getting serious” about reaching net zero by 2050.

“Producing more emissions is not producing less emissions,” Mr Robertson said.

WA’s greenhouse gas emissions have been rising

Western Australia records about 92-million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year, according to the latest available figures from 2019.

WA and the Northern Territory were the only Australian jurisdictions to record increases in the time frame between 2005 and 2019.

Meanwhile, Australia’s emissions have been tracking down.

The concern from environmental groups is that the expanded Pluto project would further increase WA’s emissions, with Woodside estimating the upgraded plant would emit 3.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year.

WA’s Minister for Environment and Climate Action, Amber-Jade Sanderson, declined to be interviewed, however in a statement said the Woodside Pluto project, including the Train 2 development, was originally approved in 2007.

But it required an updated Greenhouse Gas Abatement Program (GGAP) prior to the commencement of Train 2.

WA Environment Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson.

Ms Sanderson says the project has been updated since its initial approval in 2007.(ABC Perth: Emma Wynne)

“This updated GGAP, which now commits the project to deliver a 30 per cent reduction in the originally approved emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050, was approved by Minister Sanderson earlier this year,” the statement read.

Woodside was aiming for the expanded plant to be net zero by 2050, and said it planned to achieve this through measures including better technology, tree planting and investing in carbon offsets.

Speaking to the ABC in June Ms O’Neill said Woodside aspired to be net zero by 2050 “if not sooner” and believed short and mid-term goals were helping the company to reach that.

Graph of greenhouse gas emissions from Pluto LNG plant

Under Woodside’s plan, it would offset a third of its emissions from the expanded Pluto plant by 2030.(Supplied: Woodside )

“By 2025 we want to reduce our emissions by 15 per cent, by 2030 we want to reduce them by 30 per cent,” Ms O’Neill said in June.

“That’s absolute emissions not emissions intensity and that’s measured off our average from 2016 to 2020.”

In a statement, Ms O’Neill said the expanded plant would also help to decarbonise Asia.

“Scarborough reservoir gas contains only 0.1 per cent carbon dioxide and will be processed through the efficient and expanded Pluto LNG facility, allowing Scarborough gas to support our customers in coal-intensive Asian economies meet decarbonisation targets,” she said.

Blonde woman wearing black suit and ruffled shirt standing in front of Woodside workers controlling a robot

Woodside chief executive Meg O’Neill says overseas customers are seeing LNG as a carbon-conscious solution.(ABC: Daniel Mercer)

Woodside also said the proposed second processing train at Pluto was designed to be more energy-efficient, using improved technology — something UBS energy analyst Tim Allen agreed with.

“Scarborough gas project and Pluto LNG is a lower C02 exposed project relative to other projects,” Mr Allen said.

But it is the emissions that will come from customer countries who buy and burn the gas that environmental groups are most concerned about.

“It’s very easy for companies to say ‘well, we can offset or reduce our emissions in Australia,’ but the truth is the planet doesn’t care where the boundaries are,” Dr Lawrence said.

According to Woodside, the expanded project would produce 5.3 million tonnes of LNG a year, with the first shipment planned for 2026.

Mr Allen said the Scarborough project would account for about 10 per cent of Australia’s LNG exports going forward which was a “significant uplift” from the current Pluto site.

The federal government considers the expansion of the gas sector crucial to economic growth and believes gas will maintain reliability in the electricity system as coal-fired power stations retire and renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, become dominant.

Is Scarborough viable through to 2050?

As countries increasingly choose renewables to meet their energy demands, experts have questioned the risk of LNG as a long-term energy solution, on top of the rising attention shareholders are paying to climate dangers.

“I think anyone that’s planning on developing a fossil fuel project with a 20-year asset life today absolutely needs to be mindful of that risk,” Mr Allen said.

However, he believed there was an “unmet demand in the market” for LNG and a diverse range of buyers including China, Indonesia and Germany.

Red rocks and bush in the foreground, with gas plant infrastructure in the background.

Woodside says the expanded project would produce 5.3 million tonnes of LNG a year, with the first shipment planned for 2026.(Supplied)

But Mr Robertson said there was “tremendous pressure” on Australia’s LNG industry based on factors including customers, competition, climate concerns and finance.

He said in terms of customers, it would be difficult for Australian exporters because Japan — which is an important LNG customer for Australia — was set to halve the use of LNG for power generation by the end of the decade.

LNG seen as ‘safe, reliable, low-cost and low-carbon’

But Ms O’Neill told the ABC in June the number of nations importing LNG had “grown tremendously,” with a big increase in demand from China.

She said overseas customers were seeing LNG as part of the more carbon-conscious solution as they tried to improve the standard of living and “they’re seeing energy as core to delivering that outcome.”

Woodside's Pluto LNG project in the Pilbara lit up with lights at dusk.

Woodside says the proposed second processing train at Pluto is designed to be more energy efficient.(Supplied: Woodside Energy Ltd)

“They’re seeing LNG as safe, reliable, low-cost and low-carbon,” she said in June.

Rock art concerns

Opponents are also concerned about the damage greenhouse gases could cause to Aboriginal rock art at the Burrup Peninsula, with warnings it could become a slow-motion repeat of Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters.

“The surface of those rocks is being steadily corroded right now,” Dr Lawrence said.

Woodside has previously said no damage to the sites was predicted, and its decisions were informed by archaeological and ethnographic surveys, consultation with traditional custodians and the development of cultural heritage management plans.

An aerial view of the red dirt and trees of the Juukan Gorge.

Rio Tinto was given permission to blast Juukan Gorge under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.(Supplied: Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation )

Environment Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said the WA government was committed to protecting the Murujuga rock art through measures such as a monitoring program, as well as considering other measures including limiting the land available for industrial development.

Posted , updated 

As the world wrangles over how to curb global warming, a massive fossil fuel project in WA hurtles full steam ahead
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