The $30 billion Woodside Petroleum development slated for James Price Point in the Kimberley has been allowed to go ahead on the condition it does not affect thousands of fossilised dinosaur footprints nearby - but at least one palaeontologist says damage to the ancient imprints is inevitable.
Western Australia’s Environmental Protection Agency has cautiously approved the gas port, which will be used to process up to 50 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas from the Browse Basin each year.
The EPA has set out 29 recommendations for the development. They include limitations on marine pile-driving and blasting to protect whales and the seabed at the western coast of the Dampier Peninsula, about 60 kilometres north of Broome. The environmental regulator has also proscribed any development within 900 metres of the dinosaur tracks, which are among the largest in the world.
The tracks include the footprints of as many as 15 types of dinosaurs, predominantly sauropods - Brontosaurus-type dinosaurs, including some that have not been recorded elsewhere in Australia. Experts say the intertidal area has preserved the pathways for 130 million years.
Steve Salisbury, a lecturer in vertebrate palaeontology and biomechanics at the University of Queensland, said that with the exception of a few fragments of bone, the tracks constitute the entire fossil record of dinosaurs in the western half of the Australian continent.
“Just in the short time I’ve been working up there in the past year, I’ve noticed that areas that were beach over the last summer have now had that sand stripped away and underneath you’ve got vast big platforms exposed with hundreds of dinosaur tracks on them,” Dr Salisbury said.
“So just because there’s an area now that doesn’t have anything obviously visible on it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
"However this gas port is proposed to go ahead, it still means that you’re going to have a massive industrial precinct straddling this coastline. They’ve recommended you can’t go within 900 metres of the tracks, but what we’re potentially looking at is having the port precinct right alongside a globally significant track-site area.”
Dr Salisbury compared the development to building alongside Uluru. “It’s like saying, ‘Well we’re not going to build on Uluru, we’re just going to do it next to it. That’ll be okay.’ Most people would see that’s not the point.
"I can’t see how they can build something at that scale right next to these delicate intertidal rock platforms and not have an impact. It clearly will.”
The EPA chairman, Paul Vogel, was the only board member to assess the project after four other members were ruled out because of conflicts of interest.
“Creating any industrial undertaking, particularly one of this magnitude, will have an environmental impact, however these impacts and risks can be managed to an acceptable level,” Dr Vogel said.
The Woodside chief executive, Peter Coleman, said he was confident the company could manage the social and environmental impacts of the development.