An environmental group has launched a legal bid to halt a $16 billion gas development in Western Australia, arguing that the effect of its greenhouse gas emissions on the Great Barrier Reef will be significant and should be assessed in under national environmental legislation.
Documents filed by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) in federal court on Tuesday said the Woodside gas project in Scarborough would likely affect the global and natural values of the 2,300km reef system by adding to massive coral bleaching.
Woodside needs final approval from the offshore energy regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (Nopsema), before development can go ahead.
ACF said the project’s effect on the reef meant it should lose a legal exemption from national environmental laws given to projects assessed by Nopsema, and instead be considered under the Environmental Protection Act. Environment and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) by Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek.
The case is the latest in a growing list testing the approval of Australian fossil fuel developments based on their projected contribution to global warming.
Scarborough has become a rallying point for climate campaigners who cite a warning from scientists and the International Energy Agency that the world cannot afford major new fossil fuel projects if it is to avoid a worsening of the climate crisis. It involves opening an untapped gas field 375 km off the Pilbara coast in WA and connecting it via a pipeline to an expanded liquefied natural gas processing plant near the town of Karratha. Most of the LNG would be exported and flared in Asia.
Climate Analytics researchers estimated that gas from the development could release 1.37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – more than three times Australia’s annual emissions – into the atmosphere over 25 years.
Woodside and other supporters of the project, including WA Premier Mark McGowan and new Federal Resources Minister Madeleine King, argued that gas from Scarborough would help reduce global emissions by displacing energy at the dirtier coal. They were asked for evidence to back up and quantify this, but none was published.
The ACF documents indicated that emissions from Scarborough were likely to raise the average global temperature by at least 0.000394C, which would lead to the death of millions of corals during each future mass bleaching event.
The reef has suffered four episodes of massive coral bleaching since 2016, and scientists say 99% of coral reefs are at risk of disappearing if average heating reaches 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
ACF chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy said if the deal is successful it would help establish the idea that all new fossil fuel developments should be assessed for the climate damage they cause – a point repeatedly made by environmentalists, but often not required by Australian law.
She said she expected any assessment to show that “new coal and gas don’t stack up environmentally.”
“Scarborough gas is a climate bomb about to explode,” she said. “We must not fall for the accounting trick that suggests these emissions will not affect reefs in Australia simply because the gas will be flared primarily overseas. The reef does not care about the source of the greenhouse gases that damage it.
Woodside said the Scarborough project had been “subject to rigorous environmental assessments by a range of regulatory bodies” and would “defend its position vigorously”.
“The Scarborough project is underway and on schedule having received all primary environmental approvals,” said the company’s chief executive, Meg O’Neill.
“The project will deliver significant local and national benefits in the form of jobs, tax revenue and reliable gas supply as part of the energy transition for decades to come.”
Dr Selena Ward, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland and director of the Heron Island Reef Research Centre, said a Scarborough-scale project would make a difference to global temperatures and that it had no no sense that it is exempt from the national environment. laws.
She said the Great Barrier Reef and other tropical reefs were “already suffering intensely”. “If we want to keep them, we can’t afford to approve this kind of project,” she said.