Western Australia’s EPA urges 50-year extension of country’s most polluting gas project

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Western Australian authorities have recommended a 50-year extension of the country’s biggest polluting fossil fuel development, sparking condemnation from climate campaigners who warned it could add more than 4bn tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The WA Environment Protection Authority (EPA) advised the state government it should give the greenlight to oil and gas giant Woodside Energy to run its North West Shelf gas development in the Pilbara until 2070.

It recommended the approval be conditional on Woodside reducing the total net greenhouse gas emissions released from the gas processing facility by two-thirds – from 385m tonnes to 128m tonnes – on the way to reaching net zero carbon pollution by 2050. The company could meet those targets by cutting emissions or buying carbon credits to offset its pollution.

Opponents said the condition covered only a fraction of the total pollution expected from the expansion as the vast bulk would be “scope three” emissions released after the gas was exported and burned overseas.

Related: ‘Our ancestors are in the rocks’: Australian gas project threatens ancient carvings – and emissions blowout

Woodside has estimated the development’s scope three emissions would be about 80m tonnes a year. Climate campaigners said it suggested it could be responsible for more than 4bn tonnes of additional carbon dioxide over 50 years – more than eight times Australia’s annual emissions.

The head of clean transitions at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Jess Panegyres, said the North West Shelf expansion would undermine Australia’s emissions reduction efforts and add to a worsening climate crisis if allowed to go ahead.

She said the EPA recommendation could lead to Woodside tapping a long-promised new gas field, Browse, off the WA coast, and showed “how fossil fuel companies can exploit our weak environmental laws in their own self-interest”.

“Both the UN and International Energy Agency have been very clear that there can be no new gas developments to limit global warming to 1.5C, but Woodside continues to aggressively expand its operations, even with the global gas market set to shrink as the world switches to cleaner, safer renewables,” Panegyres said. “This dangerous company does not have Australia’s economic or environmental best interests at heart.”

Woodside said the release of the EPA recommendations marked an important step in the North West Shelf expansion. Its executive vice-president, Fiona Hick, said the company would carefully consider the conditions proposed by the EPA.

“At a time of heightened concern around energy security, the North West Shelf project has an important role to play in delivering natural gas to local and international customers, providing energy that can support their decarbonisation commitments,” she said.

Woodside recently dramatically expanded its fossil fuel footprint by merging its petroleum assets with those of the global miner BHP, a step that made it one of the world’s Top 10 oil and gas companies. It is proposing several new developments in Western Australia, including a $16bn development of the untapped Scarbrough gas field.

It has been criticised for failing to explain how it would meet what it has described as its aspiration to reach net zero emissions by 2050. At an annual general meeting in May, 48.97% of shareholders voted against the company’s climate report.

Federal government emissions data shows the North West Shelf development emitted more than 6.7m tonnes of carbon dioxide in the 2020-21 calendar year, more than any other Australian industrial facility.

The executive director of the Conservation Council of Western Australia, Maggie Wood, said the plant was one of the oldest and least efficient gas processing plants in the country, and the plant’s expansion could undermine efforts to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

She said it would continue Western Australia’s role as the laggard state on climate. Its emissions have increased 20% since 2005, largely due to the rise of a large liquefied natural gas export industry.

“Extending the life of this giant fossil fuel facility is not going to reverse the trend that has made WA the worst performing state on climate action in the country. We not only can do better, we must do better,” she said.

The EPA’s recommendations included additional conditions to prevent damage to Murujuga rock art on the Burrup Peninsula, some of which is believed to date back nearly 50,000 years. They included reducing emissions of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds by at least 40% by 2030.

The authority’s report on the development is open for appeal until 21 July after which the state environment minister, Reece Whitby, will make a final decision.

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