A campaign authored by Tim Winton and supported by environmentalists and ecotourism operators is trying to stop a pipeline factory for the oil and gas industry proposed for Exmouth Gulf, adjacent to the World Heritage Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia.
They say that Subsea 7's proposal would result in 10 km of steel and gas pipelines being transported across the Gulf to offshore gas fields, endangering coral beds, and hundreds of species in a nursery-approved facility would be feeding ground for that Sea life found on the reef. The huge 2,600 square kilometer golf is virtually undeveloped, with dugongs, manta rays, calf whales and extensive mangroves used by many species for breeding purposes.
Project enthusiasts say that this is an unfair categorization of a development that would have little impact on the environment and that it would be a blessing for Exmouth, a resort town where the resource-based investment in the Pilbara further north has not taken place. Subsea 7 says that peak production would give an estimated 120 full-time jobs for a city of about 2,500.
The result is a local consideration of an ancient argument: evolution or conservation. Winton, the patron of a group known as Protect Ningaloo, said the proposal would cause significant environmental damage and open up the pristine Gulf environment for further industrial development. He refers to the world heritage of the region.
In 2010, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recommended that the Gulf be considered for inclusion in the Ningaloo World Heritage Area due to its importance as a reef breeding ground. The Ningaloo Coast – 260 km in length – one of the longest coastal reefs in the world – was listed by Unesco in 2011. The gulf was not.
"It saddens me that some of the leadership in Exmouth Pilbara have dreams for their own piece of paradise," said Winton. "It's a short, sharp drop from Eco to Fifo [fly-in, fly-out]but it is permanent. "
Subsea 7 said it could not respond to questions about the project by publishing it, but provided a corporate document stating that the factory would be built some 10 km from the Gulf Beach at Heron Point. The pipe would be transported via a railroad track to a concrete and rock start point that would extend 300 meters into the gulf.
It is said that the pipe would be started with the tug, that steel pipes would never touch the seabed, and pipe bundles would not be launched in the whale migration season. Based on its experience with the existing operation in Scotland, the company expects to launch one or two packages a year.
Exmouth Chamber of Commerce President Barry Sullivan, who led the organization's opposition to the Ningaloo Reef World Heritage List in 2011, said business leaders were confident that the project would be of great benefit to the local community. He emphasized that Subsea 7 had promised to recruit local workers wherever possible.
Both he and the governor of the county, Matthew Niikkula, said the project would be reviewed by the WA Environmental Protection Agency and they would accept their findings. Sullivan hoped that more developments would follow, including the creation of a deep water port for cruise ships and other vessels.
"Personally, I do not think it will have any impact on the environment, but we let the referee make and respect this decision," said Sullivan. "Our concern about the big picture is that if the project does not get up, it does not bode well for another development in this area."
Niikkula said an inappropriate belief that it was a fossil fuel company that fueled the hostility to development. "Opponents are trying to say that they do not want oil and gas here, if it's reality, it's a manufacturing company, and if it made steel roof beams, nobody would jump up and down," he said. "We do not want fly-in, fly-out workers, we want people to live here and work here and bring their children to school."
But Brett Wolf, a high-end fly fishing guide whose clientele travel the world over to fish in the Gulf, said the project would have a massive impact on ecotourism companies like his.
"People do not come to this wilderness to see a factory," he said. "There are many industrial areas in Western Australia that you can do, but we left these untouched places."
Piers Verstegen of the Conservation Council of Western Australia emphasized the "absolutely fundamental" role golf played in maintaining Ningaloo's health. He accused Subsea 7 of naivety in choosing the location of development and said that he had failed to grasp both the history of the area and the extent of the community's concern.
"It's just the wrong place," he said. "If this was a larger company with a social risk profile, like Woodside, they would not dream of placing it there."
The state EPA is considering both the development itself and a change in the county's planning regime that would allow industrial projects at the proposed location. The project is expected to be approved under the Federal Law on the Protection of the Environment and the Conservation of Biodiversity.