Australia needs more gas. Some Traditional Owners say the price is too high

Australia needs more gas. Some Traditional Owners say the price is too high


Raelene Cooper stands on red rocks and sings in Murujuga. The sky is bright blue behind her.
Raelene Cooper in Murujuga.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

As Australia faces a gas crisis, Indigenous communities fear their millennia-old sacred sites will be collateral damage in the rush for fresh supplies. 

Red landscape with water in the background in Murujuga, Western Australia.
Red landscape with water in the background in Murujuga, Western Australia.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“The rocks have been here for hundreds of thousands of years.

A rock carving in Murujuga, Western Australia, shows a kangaroo, on red rock.
A rock carving in Murujuga, Western Australia, shows a kangaroo, on red rock.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“They are our history, our story, our dreaming stories.

A rock carving in Murujuga, Western Australia, shows a hand print, on red rock.
A rock carving in Murujuga, Western Australia, shows a hand print, on red rock.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“They depict the remarkable survival of our people.”

On the west coast of Australia, Raelene Cooper slips off her shoes before ascending a unique rock formation with her daughters.

It’s an act learned from her ancestors, the Mardudhunera People, who’ve performed it for millennia.

“It’s my mother’s home, my grandparents’, all of our old people that walked this place, many, many, many moons and evolutions ago,” she says.

“When we come here, this is the place to be.

“It’s our place of healing, our spirituality, where we can connect to the [country] and to our people.

Raelene Cooper, bare-footed, has one hand on the rocks as she climbs over them.
Raelene Cooper’s daughter climbs over rocks in Murujuga, Western Australia.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“They tell us and show us our paths. They show us everything that we need to know and we learn to hand our knowledge down to our young followers.”

Murujuga is the traditional name for this place where Ms Cooper belongs.

It means ‘hip bone sticking out’ and refers to the shape of the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara region, in northern Western Australia.

Sunrise is a magical time at Murujuga.

The sun is rising over rocks in Murujuga, back to camera, Raelene Cooper makes her way to the top.
Raelene Cooper, bare-footed, climbs over rocks in Murujuga, Western Australia.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

As golden light illuminates Ms Cooper’s climb, ancient rock carvings of turtles are revealed, telling the story of the peninsula’s creation.

Rock art at Murujuga, showing a turtle.
Rock art at Murujuga, showing a turtle.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“They left [the carvings] here to tell the stories,” Ms Cooper says.

Rock art at Murujuga shows two turtles swimming in opposite directions.
Rock art at Murujuga shows two turtles swimming in opposite directions.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“The turtle from the Fortescue River … come down the waterfall, couldn’t get back up the waterfall, so he come through Fortescue.

Rock art in Murujuga, depicting a turtle.
Rock art in Murujuga, depicting a turtle.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“Through the mouth of Fortescue River, he come around Murujuga, right around through the Maitland area back to the mouth of Fortescue River, where the freshwater and the saltwater meet.

“That’s the creation story.”

Murujuga is home to one of the world’s largest collections of rock carvings, believed to tell ancient stories older than 50,000 years.

It includes some of the earliest depictions of the human face — which cannot be photographed — and has been nominated for a UNESCO world heritage listing.

Raelene Cooper looks out  to the peninsula with her hands on her hips.
Raelene Cooper looks over the land her ancestors walked.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
A rock painting in Murujuga, Western Australia, shows a megafauna kangaroo, on red rock.
A petroglyph of a flat-tailed kangaroo at Ngajarli (Deep Gorge) on Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula).(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Some Traditional Owners fear these carvings are under threat from the continued expansion of industry on the peninsula, and this week Ms Cooper presented their concerns to the United Nations in Geneva.

“The rock art archives our lore. It is written not on a tablet of stone, but carved into the ngurra, which holds our Dreaming stories and Songlines.”

Pluto rising

Woodside's gas plant can be seen in the distance through native plants.
Woodside’s gas plant seen through native plants.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

The Burrup Peninsula is also home to Australia’s largest oil and gas extraction plants.

Since the 1980s, Woodside has had a presence on the peninsula through the North West Shelf project, located near Karratha, which has produced liquefied gas for export.

The project expanded in 2007 to include another processing facility, Pluto.

Woodside has now received state and Commonwealth approval for a further $16.5 billion expansion, known as the Scarborough offshore gas project, which includes the expansion of the Pluto facility, called Pluto 2.

The gas mining industry already provides employment for a third of the local population — more than 4,000 jobs.

Woodside said the expansion would create up to another 3,200 jobs during construction and nearly 600 ongoing roles across the country, and the company said it had a commitment to prioritising Traditional Owner and Custodian employment.

An aerial picture of Woodside's plant on the coastline.
Woodside’s Pluto gas processing plant in WA is set for an expansion.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Woodside gas plant, with a branch seen in the foreground.
Woodside gas plant, in the industrial estate of the Burrup Peninsula.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

The company said it had consulted extensively with Traditional Owners, including “environmental monitoring, archaeological and ethnographic surveys and access to independent expert advice”.

Over the decades, the Traditional Owners’ relationship with the company has been a complicated one.

In 2002, Traditional Owners agreed to give up three separate Native Title claims on the Burrup Peninsula and Maitland area, after the WA government told them it intended to acquire the land for heavy industry.

In return, they received non-industrial land entitlements, millions of dollars in compensation and investment in education, training and employment.

In 2006, the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) was established, which included the Ngarluma-Yindjibarndi, the Yaburara Mardudhunera, and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo people.

“The corporation was set up in the environment of the time, where Native Title in the Pilbara region wasn’t sorted yet,” MAC chief executive Peter Jefferies said.

“So for the time and place of where it was set up and how it was set up, the corporation was set up to be able to manage land and other assets on behalf of its members.”

To this day, the 2002 deal governs the use of the heavy industry estate. Companies consult with the MAC about future plans, but do not need their approval for works within the industrial zone.

Water splashes over rocks on a beach.
The salt water of Burrup Peninsula.
The lower half of Raelene's body, coming in from the beach.
Raelene Cooper walks in from the beach, where she communes with her ancestors.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Ocean water lapping sand.
Ocean laps the sand in Burrup Peninsula, Raelene Cooper’s country.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Bright green moss among rocks.
Moss grows among rocks at Murujuga.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
A tree with pale grey bark against a red rock background.
A tree at Murujuga.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
A stream through rocky country reflects the sun.
A stream through Ngajarli (Deep Gorge) on Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula).(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Ms Cooper was a member of the MAC for 10 years, until she quit in February this year, partly due to a “gag clause” in the 2002 agreement, which she believed stopped Traditional Owners voicing their objections to industrial development in the area.

The clause stated contracting parties could not “lodge or cause to be lodged any objection to development proposals intended to occur on land” within the industrial estate.

A federal senate inquiry into the Juukan Caves destruction last year described ‘gag clauses’ as “egregious” and recommended they be prohibited in the industry at a Commonwealth, state and territory level. 

A gas plant, with smoke emitting from chimneys.
Traditional owners are concerned about emissions from the Scarborough gas plant.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Ms Cooper says emissions from Woodside’s gas plants are already doing irrevocable damage to her spiritual home.

“I’ve been out on this [country] many, many times over the years with my family and we’re visibly seeing the effects of the emissions and the air pollution.”

The sun sets on the Scarborough gas plant, coastline in the foreground.
Scarborough gas plant on the Dampier Peninsular.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Woodside says there has been no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that shows impacts on the nearby rock art by industrial emissions.

Scarborough gas plant.
Scarborough gas plant.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

But previous studies have been criticised for a range of issues, and the WA Department of Environment has commissioned the Murujuga Rock Art Monitoring Project — a thorough investigation to look at whether emissions are accelerating natural weathering of the petroglyphs.

Chimneys from Scarborough's Pluto gas facility with flames coming from them.
Chimneys from Scarborough’s Pluto gas facility.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

The company told the ABC in a statement it was also adopting technology to reduce the emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from its gas plant and supporting the on-going monitoring of the Murujuga rock art.

Traditional Owners, like Peter Jefferies, have again been weighing up the importance of their land, culture and artefacts, and the economic prosperity of the region and their people.

There’s been lengthy consultation with the Aboriginal Corporation from Woodside over the last two and a half years with regards to the Scarborough development,” Mr Jefferies said.

So there’s been quite a bit of work done with Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation about sitting there and understanding the potential risk or opportunities with regards to Scarborough.”

Ms Cooper has written to the Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney and the Minister for Water and Environment Tanya Plibersek about her concerns of industry impacts on the rock art, but there is limited avenue for appeal.

Ms Burney and Ms Plibersek declined to be interviewed. 

Looming large in the back of Ms Cooper’s mind is the destruction of the 46,000 year-old caves at Juukan Gorge by mining giant Rio Tinto in 2020.

She’s not the only Traditional Owner deeply affected by what happened at Juukan Gorge.

Pilliga Forest

In the Pilliga Forest, in north-west New South Wales, Gomeroi woman Suellyn Tighe feels something isn’t right.

A hand with a bush with small berries on it, in her hand.
Suellyn Tighe shows berries in flower in Pilliga Forest.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“Nature’s in some sort of flux — there’s things flowering.

A wren sits on a branch in the Pilliga forest.
A wren in the Pilliga forest.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“Birds are nesting, when they’re not usually nesting

A rock with dried leaves hanging down it in Pilliga Forest.
A rock with dried leaves hanging down it in Pilliga Forest.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“Our climate patterns are out of whack.”

This is Gomeroi country, where Ms Tighe grew up knowing where to find the biggest and best tasting berries.

“Those type of plants are what we call calendar plants, which will tell us when we can go fishing for a particular type of fish, or when we can go and catch freshwater yabbies.

“But when they’re out of whack that puts the timing out for even the animals, because the animals will be coming in eating those plants soon, so when the natural fruiting time comes, there will be no fruit.”

Ms Tighe is worried about what’s happening on the land that holds the stories and history of their people.

Suellyn looks at a plant.
Suellyn has noticed Pilliga forest changing in recent years.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Small white flowers.
Suellyn says some plants are flowering at unusual times.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
A bush with drops of dew on it gleaming in the sun.
The Pilliga forest is Australia’s largest inland native forest.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

While she sees climate change slowly disturbing the Gomeroi seasons, she’s concerned looming industrial expansion will bring more disruption to the forest.

Australia’s biggest domestic gas supplier, Santos, plans to drill 850 gas wells in an area of the Pilliga Forest known as Zone 4, which has been set aside for forestry, recreation and mineral extraction by the NSW government since 2005.

Signs for Santos high pressure gas lines.
Santos high pressure gas lines running through Pilliga forest.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

The Narrabri project has already received the green light from the NSW Independent Planning Commission and the federal government, a process which included heritage assessment.

According to Santos, all of the gas from the Narrabri project will be committed to the domestic market, and will fulfil up to half of New South Wales’s household gas needs. 

A Santos sign on the street of Narrabri.
Santos has set up a shop front in Narrabri.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Australia is a major global exporter of gas, but this winter the country’s domestic supply has fallen short.

The cost of coal and gas is largely driven by international demand, which means supplies needed outside of existing contracts are exposed to volatile international spot prices.

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