WA regulator draws fire as it sticks to its guns on Woodside gas plant

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The West Australian environmental regulator’s commitment to let Australia’s largest gas export plant stay open until 2070 has prompted calls for the federal government to step in and rethink the long-term viability of the facility.

A leaked letter from the WA Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has shown the state regulator is sticking with its position to let Woodside’s North West Shelf (NWS) plant in the Pilbara continue to operate until 2070, despite receiving more than 700 objections to its position.

The Woodside-operated North West Shelf in WA.Credit: Krystle Wright

Critics, including the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), say any decision to allow another five decades of exports from the nation’s biggest gas plant needs to be considered by the federal government rather than being left to the WA regulator.

Woodside has estimated that emissions created at the gas plant, coupled with the emissions created when its overseas customers burn the gas, could total up to 4.4 billion tonnes over 50 years. This is almost 10 times Australia’s total carbon pollution in 2022.

ACCR analyst Alex Hillman said the EPA had opened a window for Woodside without knowing the consequences.

“This is not just Australia’s most important climate decision, it’s as important as all the other ones put together,” he said.

Hillman added that Woodside’s plant, which shipped Australia’s first cargo of liquefied natural gas in 1989, would close in the middle of the next decade if no new gas fields are developed. Woodside’s plan to develop the CO2-rich Browse gas fields and pipe the gas 100 kilometres to the NWS plant would use less than half its capacity.

As part of the approval process, the EPA required Woodside to report in 2045 on whether continued operation of the plant would be consistent with “a low carbon environment beyond 2050”.

But Bill Hare, chief executive of consultancy Climate Analytics, said the requirement imposed on Woodside was an “extremely performative review … when it’s too late to do anything”.

“Any entity that thinks you can go ahead with emitting fossil fuel emissions for the next nearly 50 years is clearly in denial about what needs to be done,” he said.

Hare added that while the EPA allowed emitters to use offsets to achieve emissions reductions, the mechanisms were not permanent enough to negate the effect of long-lasting carbon dioxide emissions.

In 2019, the Coalition government agreed it would use the EPA’s assessment as the basis for federal approval of the project.

Greenpeace clean energy head Jess Panegyres said much had changed since then – including the Black Summer bushfires and a federal legislative requirement to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 – and federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek should initiate her own inquiry.

“It demonstrates that our federal environment laws are broken, that this critical climate decision that has a 50-year longevity could be left to a small state EPA with a really narrow mandate,” she said.

A Woodside spokeswoman said the company complies with regulatory requirements in seeking and receiving approvals for its projects and awaited the guidance of the state’s Appeals Convenor, which is considering the objections lodged against the EPA’s position.

After climate, the greatest concern about the NWS plant is the effect of its industrial pollution on the more than 1 million adjacent ancient rock-art engravings, which are nominated for World Heritage listing.

The EPA said that if the art is damaged, restoration is unlikely to be possible. However, the authority said the scientific literature on the issue was limited and contested.

University of Western Australia’s professor of rock art Benjamin Smith disputes both points and said the one paper disputing the link between pollution and rock-art damage was not published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

“There are no other recent scientific reports that suggest industrial emissions are not damaging the rock art,” he said.

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