Vast areas of ancient Aboriginal rock art dating back to the last ice age will be protected in Australia's northwest, but some may be moved to make way for a major gas terminal, the Australian government said on Tuesday.
CANBERRA -- Vast areas of ancient Aboriginal rock art dating back to the last ice age will be protected in Australia's northwest, but some may be moved to make way for a major gas terminal, the Australian government said on Tuesday.
The decision clears a hurdle for oil and gas producer Woodside Petroleum Ltd.'s plan to build a A$10 billion ($8.6 billion) gas project near the Dampier port in the north of the resource-rich Western Australia state.
Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he had balanced the needs of the environment with Australia's economic development, but environmentalists condemned the decision as not doing enough to protect the rock art, or petroglyphs.
"The minister's belated decision... comes too late to stop the damage that has occurred, and is sadly framed to allow further damage," Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, Labor politician Carmen Lawrence and independent Peter Andren said in a joint statement.
Turnbull said he would declare an area of 241 square kilometres (93 square miles) in the Dampier Archipelago and Burrup Peninsula as heritage sites, covering tens of thousands of ancient Aboriginal rock images.
But companies with leases over an area of one percent of the new heritage sites will be allowed to continue developments by working around the rock art, or petroglyphs, and will be permitted to move the giant red rocks if needed.
Turnbull said the compromise decision would allow development to go ahead around Dampier, Australia's second largest export port, which supports thousands of jobs and more than A$35 billion worth of mining and resource projects.
Woodside said it supported the decision, which would allow for further preparatory work on the site of its Pluto liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, terminal and storage tanks.
Site preparation work began on the LNG plant in January, but has been awaiting Turnbull's decision on the rock art.
The Pluto development neighbours the North West Venture's gas plant on the Burrup Peninsula, also operated by Woodside as one of the joint venture partners.
Woodside is due to make a final decision on its Pluto LNG project by the end of the year, subject to final government environmental approval.
If it goes ahead, the project will pump gas from the Pluto and Xena gas fields, about 190 km (118 miles) offshore, to the new plant for processing and export.
Woodside's Pluto and Xena fields have reserves of 4.5 trillion cubic feet, and the project is expected to produce around 5 million tonnes of LNG a year.
"We support the decision. We believe it provides proper recognition of the heritage of the area. We're pleased that the minister has recognised that industry and heritage can co-exist," a Woodside spokeswoman told Reuters.
Woodside has already moved about 42 pieces of the rock art in preparatory work for gas storage tanks for the project, which is scheduled to start delivering LNG by 2010 if it goes ahead.
Turnbull said there could be as many as a million petroglyphs, which depict people and animals, including fish, turtles, kangaroos and snakes, and some species extinct for thousands of years.
"In the rocky red valleys we can begin to understand how Aboriginal people responded to changes in the landscape after the last ice age," Turnbull said in a statement.