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Barrow Island: preservation or geosequestration?

The in-principle approval of new gas processing facilities on the north western nature reserve of Barrow Island raises questions about the long term safety of geosequestration projects.


BARROW ISLAND, 56 kilometres off Australia's North West coast, is home to a vast array of unique mammals, birds and reptiles. It is being targeted as the site of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing facility, which threatens to severely compromise the conservation values of the island. In addition, the partners in the Gorgon Joint Venture project, Shell, Exxon-Mobil and ChevronTexaco, propose to inject 125 millions of tonnes of C[O.sub.2] into the saline aquifer beneath the island, using a technology known as geosequestration. Geosequestration is untested on such a large scale and mired in controversy regarding its appropriateness as a climate change policy tool.

Barrow Island has been a Class A nature reserve since 1910. Despite this, in 1966 legislation provided for a petroleum lease on Barrow Island, granted to Western Australian Petroleum (WAPET), and a producing oil field was subsequently established. ChevronTexaco now operates the field.

Since oilfield operations commenced, 27 breaches of quarantine protection for the island have been recorded, clearing and fragmentation has occurred due to a proliferation of roads, and 13 exotic weed plant species have been introduced.

Despite these incursions and breaches, Barrow Island remains one of the most important islands for the protection of endangered species in Australia. In many ways, the relatively pest and weed free island is a living record of how much of northern Australia would have looked prior to European invasion.

Biodiversity Conservation Officer at the Conservation Council of Western Australia (CCWA) Cameron Poustie says Barrow Island's primary significance is its mammals, particularly endemic subspecies such as the Barrow Island boodie, Barrow Island euro, Barrow Island mouse, Barrow Island golden bandicoot, and Barrow Island spectacled hare-wallaby.

Indeed, endemism is a theme--in all, there are 24 forms of animal that don't exist anywhere else in the world, including two reptiles, one bird and 16 invertebrates.

The Gorgon development

The Gorgon gas field is located 60 km to the North West of Barrow Island. The Gorgon proposal involves clearing 300 hectares of the island for the construction of gas processing facilities and the injection of four to five million tonnes of C[O.sub.2] every year into the saline aquifer under the island.

The proposal was rejected by both Western Australia's Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and Conservation Commission. In its statement the EPA said: "Given the very high environmental and unique conservation values of Barrow Island, it is the view of the EPA that, as a matter of principle, industry should not be located on a nature reserve and specifically not oil Barrow Island."

Despite these findings the Western Australian government granted "in-principle" approval to the project in September 2003 and in November that year, passed the Barrow Island Act 2003, which enables Barrow Island to be used for gas processing project purposes and for the geosequestration of C[O.sub.2].

What is geosequestration?

Gas from the Gorgon gas fields has an extremely high level of reservoir C[O.sub.2] and when production begins on the site it is estimated to emit 8.1 million tonnes of C[O.sub.2] each year. Geosequestration has been proposed in order to significantly reduce this output.

Both internationally and within Australia, environmentalists say many questions need to be answered before governments should support the application of geosequestration as a greenhouse gas reduction policy. The sole large-scale geosequestration pilot project, at the Sleipner field in Norway has only been operating since 1996. Sequestered C[O.sub.2] will have to remain underground and effectively stored for tens of thousands of years if it is to be an effective method of reducing global concentrations of C[O.sub.2] in the atmosphere. Very little is understood about the long-term behaviour of C[O.sub.2] in saline aquifers, however.

It is also far from clear who will have long term responsibility for projects if something goes wrong with a geosequestration project in the very long term.

Department of Industry and Resources deputy director general Stuart Smith says the current Draft Regulatory Principles assign responsibility and associated liabilities should to the project proponent until the relevant government is satisfied residual risks of leakage and liability are acceptably low.

CCWA President Sue Graham-Taylor says the Gorgon gas development on Barrow Island will commit the State to the use of the island as an industrial park for the long term. The Gorgon Project, with or without the injection of C[O.sub.2] underground, will also contribute an enormous amount to Australia's greenhouse gas emissions--almost 1% of our 1990 baseline per year at a minimum.


The Prime Minister's long awaited energy statement, Securing Australia's Future, was released on June 15th, 2004. Rather than acknowledge the massive problems with Australia's reliance on fossil fuels, particularly coal, the energy White Paper focuses on "developing Australia's low cost energy resources", The necessity to link Australia's strategic energy planning to climate change mitigation policies is overlooked.

The establishment of a $500 million "low technology fund", designed to "leverage more than $1 billion in private investment to develop low emission technologies", is expected to be substantially directed towards research and development into geosequestration from coal-fired electricity. Fossil fuel industries, such as those that contribute to the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies (C[O.sub.2]CRC), are already investing significant funds in geosequestration research and development. These industries will be better placed to leverage a far larger share of the Government funding than the smaller renewable energy industries.

The White Paper says renewable energy technologies, such as wind and bagasse, are relatively mature. By comparison carbon capture is still to reach demonstration stage and the paper says demonstrating the commercial applicability of these technologies is likely to be expensive and take at least ten years, It fails to do is make a case as to why carbon capture is a priority for public funding rather than the deployment of mature renewable technologies.

The full report, Securing Australia's Energy Future, is available at: [website]


Write to the Premier of Western Australia and tell him the Government should withdraw its support for Gorgon Joint Venture's proposal to construct LNG processing facilities on Barrow Island, due to the inevitable impacts on the Island's unique biodiversity. It should also prevent the Gorgon Joint Venture from geosequestering carbon dioxide below the island; there are too many uncertainties and too little public understanding of the risks involved with the application of geosequestration technology.

Dr Geoff Gallop

Premier of Western Australia

197 St George's Terrace

PERTH 6000


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Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUWA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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