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Gasploitation in Queensland


'Gasploitation' by Chris JohnstonThe Western Australian Government recently acquired 3414 hectares of land at James Price Point, near Broome. It is the latest move in the continuing saga to develop the Browse Basin's liquefied natural gas (LNG), reserves that are now likely to be processed offshore. This controversial story is being played out on the national stage by heavy hitters from Indigenous and environmental organisations, the state and industry.

On the other side of the country, the building of four LNG processing plants on Curtis Island, off Gladstone, Qld, is proceeding more smoothly. Yet, while the traditional owners of James Price Point have received international attention, Gladstone traditional owners have barely been heard.

In WA, the land use agreements struck between the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr people, the state and Woodside Energy were worth at least $1.5 billion, including land packages and funds for health, education and training. In Gladstone, the equivalent agreements are 'crumbs off the master's table', say traditional owners.

Walk through Gladstone and you feel the LNG industry's prominence: from the multiple shopfronts of gas companies including Santos, Origin and Arrow, to the lack of discussion about the negative impact that dredging is said to have on the Great Barrier Reef.

The local Indigenous people claiming ownership of Curtis Island are known as the Port Curtis Coral Coast (PCCC) people, an amalgam of the Gooreng Gooreng, Gurang, Bailai and Bunda peoples. All four LNG projects have negotiated land access agreements with this group, none of which are publically available. However, the snippets of information that I hear about them are telling.

Tony Johnson, a PCCC traditional owner, tells me that 'the four of them ... do not total $10 million. It's obscene. I couldn't honestly say that we got the best of a bad lot.' I ask a manager from Santos' Aboriginal Engagement whether he has seen the Browse agreements. They are 'very generous' he replies. I ask him whether any of the Gladstone agreements are in the same ballpark. 'No,' he says, they are in 'a different stratosphere'.

In Broome, discussions between traditional owners, Woodside and the state took years to complete, and cost at least $40 million. The Kimberly Land Council was funded to employ lawyers, media advisors, scientists and LNG industry consultants. In contrast, engagement with the PCCC was perfunctory and short. Santos had a negotiation period comprising just five meetings, prior to which the company had already worked out a reasonable 'jump-in' point for compensation.

I ask the Santos manager whether any groups are able to push past that initial offer. 'They try to,' he says. Do they ever succeed? 'No, not really.'

There are many reasons for these disparities. The Kimberley is iconic and its Indigenous owners — people like Wayne Bergmann, Pat Dodson and Peter Yu — have political clout. Gladstone just doesn't have the same profile.

Another difference is the strength of native title rights at the two sites. At James Price Point, the land has only ever been owned by Indigenous people. Around Gladstone, traditional owners were booted off their land early in the colonial history of Queensland: a loss of connection to country means that native title rights are diminished.

Andrew Fraser, the former Queensland treasurer, says that this explains the gulf between the compensation being offered in Gladstone and Broome. Yet, as the former CEO of Woodside Don Voelte pointed out recently, the Browse package was not only about paying for land, but also 'sharing the rewards' of the LNG project. Indeed, when the land at James Price Point was commercially valued it was said to be worth just $6–7 million.

Another difference between the two projects is how much traditional owners were funded to negotiate. In Gladstone, they had only legal advice, paid for by the LNG companies. They asked for more help from Queensland, but this was refused. Fraser says the role of governments in these negotiations is to 'set the rules of the game', however 'the idea that government needs to be [traditional owners'] agent in a negotiation is paternalistic'.

Yet, the government did play a role. As Johnson observed of his negotiations with the companies: 'When we were digging our heels in on any particular issue, including protecting significant cultural sites, we would always find ourselves in a meeting with the deputy director coordinator general ... and they would bring out the old compulsory acquisition stick.'

Indeed, Queensland is a major beneficiary of these projects. The day after a 'shut up' deal was signed with Santos, the PCCC learnt that the state would be receiving $200 million annually in royalties from that company. Several people travelled to Santos headquarters in Brisbane and burnt an effigy of the manager I have been speaking to. He says this did not bother him, that none of the publicity about the protest had gone 'mainstream'.


Lily O'Neill headshotLily O'Neill is a lawyer and PhD student researching the Indigenous land use agreements for the Browse and Gladstone LNG developments.

Topic tags: Lily O'Neill, James Price Point, Broome, Gladstone, Indigenous Australians



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Existing comments

Hi Lily, The is no ILUA between the GJJ claim group (since split) and the State. They had to settle for a State agreement because they could not achieve consensus, even with all the skulduggery. Make no mistakes, the TO's were being completely ripped off because this was never about 3,414 hectares this was about an industrial precinct of 20,000 hectares. If you read the 2005 West Kimberley resource development paper. You will see that the DSD wants a major port in the Kimberley because it is seen as the next big thing. Gladstone is already developed and not only is the toe in the door there, it has the whole pack inside. Here, no development, no toe in the door. The sweetener has to be BIG!

mark | 17 January 2014  

Thank you for pointing out how the oil companies destroying sacred lands from the Kimberley to Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef and around the world. We are trying to help stop them: http://tinyurl.com/koxfk8l

Teri Shore | 18 January 2014  

There has been no consultation with traditional owners whatsoever about fracking in the Caning Basin in the Kimberley. We see this project covering a huge area of the country for some of the biggest language groups across the west and into part of the East Kimberley areas, including the Nyikana–Mangala, Karrajarri, Gooniyandi, Ngurrara, Tjurabalan, Walmajarri, Juwaliny, Yawuru, Bunuba and some Jaru land. There are 10 different language groups. These languages are different from each other. A few are similar in dialect. We all know that a development of this type will have a big impact on the land use and practises of local Aboriginal people, and also the social impact that will occur once areas become established. How is it that Barnett was offering 1.5 billion dollars for James Price Point to indigenous people but these traditional owners in the Fitzroy valley which covers an enormous area of 17 000 square kilometres, have been offered nothing. Mitsubishi and their Australian puppet company Buru , have been given extraordinary leverage with the special Canning Basin Bill pasted last year. To add insult to injury the WA EPA announced that they do not have to undertake an environmental assessment, whilst in the middle of a state Inquiry into Fracking. The interaction between the state agreement act and the future act regime of the Native Title Act clearly blunts the few powerful instruments that traditional owners have in those areas by consistently and negatively affecting their rights to negotiate or to object to this development,. It should remember that these lands are home to a large number of Aboriginal people. Respect should be shown to these people and their families. After all, their native title rights have been recognised as only they can speak for their country. After all, it is their country and lands and it is recognised under the national Native Title Act as belonging to them and their families. Respect should be shown at all times.

Red Handed | 18 January 2014  

QLD the carpet-bagger state: pro-development, anti-environment, anti-social justice, anything for a quick buck!

Evagrius | 19 January 2014  

Thank you Lily, and could your research include Timor Leste and Papua ? There seems to be huge investment in exploration from big companies and the Australian government does not seem to see this is exploitation of the most vulnerable people with culturally sensitive and fragile democracies. It is the same story in QLD- fragile legal rights due to destruction of cultural ties.Modern piracy plundering treasure. There must be a way to harness Australian solar power before the environment and eco systems die. We need the stock exchange to be measured next to extinction rate,salinity percentages, extreme temperatures and water and food quality/scarcity. $ percentages?

Catherine | 20 January 2014  

The issue of land use agreements between indigenous and other settlers must be settled on a rational and fair base. There are well working models of such working relationships already in place. For example in Switzerland most of the alpine areas are owned by indigenous groups of “Buergers” . The ownership dates back to pre-Roman times and it has preserved the ownership of these lands. Firstly the land cannot be sold, but it can be leased for example on a 100 year lease terms. It means that the land has remained in the hands of the indigenous owners for many hundreds of years. The inability of selling land has not slowed development and or the opportunities for non-indigenous people. The land is leased and is therefore removed from land speculation. Income from the lease is only given to people actually living in their traditional areas and therefore only people with a direct connection to the land. It may be a good idea for our Governments and indigenous representatives to look at such working models. If there is a will there is a way.

Beat Odermatt | 20 January 2014  

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