the scale of threat posed by the many interconnected fossil fuel projects in WA’s Pilbara region is staggering, and yet we’ve stopped talking about it as a whole: the Burrup Hub. Now, it’s time to zoom out again, look at the whole picture and do whatever we can to halt the massive destruction unfolding in the west.
By Gerard Mazza
Murujuga in the North West of Western Australia should be one of Australia’s best-known tourist destinations. Also known as the Burrup Peninsula, it inspires awe in a similar way to Uluru and is home to more than a million ancient rock engravings. There are excellent tours of the area offered by Indigenous-led businesses, but many travellers pass through the nearby town of Karratha without knowing the Murujuga rock art exists.
At the main turnoff towards Murujuga National Park from the Dampier Highway, there is no signage to say you’re in the vicinity of globally significant heritage. Instead, the most prominent sign is for the Northwest Shelf Gas Project, an LNG facility operated by Woodside Energy. Above it is a sign for the Dampier Port Authority, below it, one for Woodside’s Visitor’s Centre.
One reason Murujuga is too often left off the map is that big industry has left a heavy mark on the precious cultural and natural landscape. Murujuga is the site of massive development that is responsible for damage to both Aboriginal cultural heritage and the stability of the earth’s climate. Being on Murujuga is a disorienting experience. Look in one direction and you’ll see ancient art, towering red-rock hills, wildflowers, kangaroos and the glistening ocean. Look the other way and you’ll see chemical plants, pipelines, and flares, emitting toxic chemicals and humming with industrial noise.
Collectively, this expanding industry is known as the Burrup Hub. It’s a term first used by Woodside itself, then quietly put aside in 2021. Since then, Woodside has preferred to break up the larger project into chunks when speaking to the public, without making clear that these pieces are interlinked. It’s attempted to avoid scrutiny of its plans which, when considered together, would make Australia’s meagre climate targets difficult to meet and threaten the Murujuga rock art through chemical emissions.
The climate movement in WA followed Woodside’s lead and stopped talking about the Burrup Hub. Now, it’s time to zoom out again, look at the whole picture and do whatever we can to halt the massive destruction unfolding in the west.
The history of Murujuga since colonisation is a tragic one. In 1868, the Burrup Peninsula was the site of the Flying Foam Massacre, during which, over months, colonial settlers murdered many men, women and children who were original custodians of the land.
Almost 100 years later, industry first made its way to the Burrup Peninsula. Murujuga was chosen as the site of a port in the early 1960s because an earlier proposed location, Depuch Island, was home to a lot of rock art deemed to have exceptional heritage value. The WA government was supposedly unaware of the heritage that existed on the Peninsula.
Woodside arrived in 1978, when it chose Murujuga as the processing site for its North West Shelf Gas Project. The Karratha Gas Plant began operations in 1984, without the consent of traditional custodians. During construction, Woodside destroyed an estimated 5,000 pieces of rock art. An additional 1,700 petroglyphs were dumped in a nearby fenced compound, known as ‘the graveyard’ – some face down in the dirt – and were only relocated in 2014.
Following the introduction of the Native Title Act in 1993, three Native Title claimant groups, the Ngarluma-Yindjibarndi, the Yaburara-Mardudhunera and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo, made overlapping claims to Murujuga. In 2002, before these claims were decided, the WA government, with plans for ‘compulsory acquisition’ to enable more industry in the area, initiated the Burrup and Maitland Industrial Estate Agreement (BMIEA) with the three claimant groups. The BMIEA extinguished Native Title on the Burrup in exchange for freehold title to non-industrial land and other benefits for the groups. The agreement led to the establishment of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), an organisation that represents the claimant groups, collectively known as the Ngaarda-Ngarli, and co-manages the Murujuga National Park. According to MAC’s Cultural Management Plan, “many Ngaarda-Ngarli did not want to sign the agreement but felt they had no choice as the State Government made it clear that industrial development would go ahead regardless.”
Many other companies proposed industrial facilities for the Burrup over the years, though most did not proceed. Burrup Fertilisers did and began ammonia production in 2006. In 2012, Norwegian company Yara bought the facility, and has since constructed a neighbouring technical ammonium nitrate plant. Since 2017, Yara has been responsible for multiple chemical spills that have put ecosystems at risk.
In 2007, Woodside began construction on a second gas processing facility, Pluto, to treat gas from the Pluto offshore field. 170 petroglyphs were relocated to make way for this development. These rock art removals led to an on-country protest and submissions for protection under Federal Aboriginal Heritage legislation. Traditional Custodians say moving rock art sites from their proper location is a form of desecration. According to Senior Yindjibarndi Elder Tootsie Daniel, a member of MAC’s Circle of Elders, “the rock art is like our Bible and so moving parts of it is very harmful. Whoever comes along, if they move or take it they are going to get hurt.” Heritage professionals also say significant sites should be left in situ. The Burra Charter, which outlines best practice for managing places of significance, says “the physical location of a place is part of its cultural significance,” and “relocation is generally unacceptable.”
Scientists have shown that chemical emissions from Woodside and Yara are putting the Murujuga rock art at risk of degradation. Traditional custodians agree. “We have personally witnessed the disintegration and fading of the rock art,” according to Kuruma Marthudhunera woman Josie Alec. Woodside has cast aspersions on the science, but WA’s Environmental Protection Authority has stated: “there may be a threat of serious or irreversible damage to rock art from industrial air emissions,” and recommended a cautious approach.
Damaging chemical emissions on Murujuga are set to increase. Construction has begun on a second processing train at Woodside’s Pluto facility to treat gas from the new offshore Scarborough development. Woodside also recently gained a fifty-year extension on the North West Shelf, extending operations into the 2070s. In addition, the company plans to exploit the Browse basin and process its gas on the Burrup.
Of course, these expansions also come with a cost to the climate. In 2020-21, the North West Shelf was the most carbon polluting industrial facility in the country. The Burrup Hub expansions will produce an estimated 6 billion tonnes of carbon emissions over 50 years. Annually, this is equivalent to the emissions of New Zealand, Ireland, Norway and Bolivia combined.
Meanwhile, the company Perdaman has made headlines for its plans to remove three rock art sites to construct another fertiliser plant on the Burrup. Perdaman has a contract to purchase gas from Woodside to make urea fertiliser. The plant could easily be built at the nearby Maitland Industrial Estate, an area without heritage sites that is earmarked for industry. Instead, Perdaman has chosen to maximise profit by locating its plant closer to Woodside’s facilities.
The previous federal government committed $255 million in funding to support the Perdaman project. Senator Dorinda Cox questioned why the government was “willing to fund Juukan Gorge 2.0.”
Meanwhile, Yara is proceeding with plans for a ‘demonstration project’ next to its existing facilities on the Burrup which will use renewable hydrogen to create ammonia. Yara will install a bank of solar panels to produce 0.4% of the energy the ammonia plant requires. Esteemed rock art professor John Black has described the project as “greenwashing” and is concerned it will diminish the cultural value of the landscape.
In November 2021, a group of Murujuga custodians formed the group Save Our Songlines to hold a community rally in Karratha in opposition to Woodside’s Scarborough project. A crowd of around 50 Ngaarda-Ngarli and their supporters gathered to paint banners, hear traditional songs and yarn about country. Since then, Save Our Songlines has grown into a powerful, First Nations-led, grassroots campaign, running off volunteer labour and crowdfunded donations, and has succeeded in elevating the profile of the Murujuga rock art and the Burrup Hub nationally and internationally.
In March, 27 community leaders and Elders, including a MAC board member, MAC Circle of Elders members, and an original signatory of the BMIEA agreement, signed an open letter from Save Our Songlines asking for a pause on the Scarborough project and for controversial ‘gag clauses’ in the BMIEA to be removed. These clauses prevent MAC and the BMIEA’s contracting parties from objecting to development on the Burrup.
“We want to be able to say no,” said Ngarluma custodian Patrick Churnside, one of the signatories to the letter. “The question is, when are we able to say no, as custodians? The laws and legislations of today do not allow us to say no.”
In July, following final WA government approval for Perdaman, emergency heritage applications to Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek led to the Minister putting a temporary pause on the urea plant. Ultimately, these applications were rejected, as Plibersek claimed she was satisfied MAC had agreed to the rock art removals. It was later revealed that MAC’s Circle of Elders had repeatedly objected to the relocations, and only agreed to a plan to move the engravings once it became clear it was not possible to conserve the sites in their original locations.
Plibersek has now ordered the first independent review of cumulative threats to industry to Murujuga, because of the efforts of Save Our Songlines. Despite this, construction work on new facilities by Woodside, Perdaman and Yara will be allowed to continue while the investigation takes place.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, the Australian government is not doing us a favour,” said Mardudhunera Custodian Raelene Cooper, who submitted the applications for the investigation. “This decision is the basic job of government and only came because we keep holding them accountable.”
Other grassroots groups and climate NGOs have worked in their own ways to object to the Burrup Hub, including through direct action, legal cases and shareholder activism. The Greens have worked to bring scrutiny to Woodside and Perdaman, and consistently voiced support for Save Our Songlines in the parliament and media.
Given the scale of threat posed by the Burrup Hub, it’s essential we all continue to build our efforts to halt further industry on Murujuga. As the IPCC makes clear, Indigenous knowledge will play an important role in addressing the challenges of climate change. By following the lead of traditional custodians, those campaigning against Woodside and Perdaman have an opportunity to centre such knowledge and do their climate work in a way that puts justice at the forefront.
Traditional Custodians from Save Our Songlines require funds to continue their efforts to protect Murujuga and support their applications under Aboriginal heritage laws. You can donate here.
Gerard Mazza is a writer and a climate justice activist.