Environment Minister Bill Marmion has thrown a spanner in the expected environmental approval of Woodside Petroleum's Browse LNG project by delaying a decision from the environment watchdog that was to be released today.
Mr Marmion announced late yesterday that he was seeking legal advice on whether Environmental Protection Authority chairman Paul Vogel should be allowed to take a solo vote on the $40 billion development, given public disquiet this week over the matter.
_WestBusiness _ revealed at the weekend that the other four EPA board members had excused themselves due to conflicts of interest. Mr Marmion gave no indication of when the EPA report would be released, but said he had requested legal advice as a matter of priority.
"This proposal is extremely complex and I want to ensure due process has been followed at all levels," he said.
Despite the 11th-hour ministerial intervention, Dr Vogel's recommendation was expected to give the green light subject to a number of conditions, similar to the EPA nod three years ago for Chevron's Gorgon LNG development on the ecologically sensitive Barrow Island.
The Barnett Government is in favour of the project so is almost certain to tick off the development on the environmental front, following the EPA advice.
The Federal Government was instrumental in late 2009 in demanding that the Woodside consortium spend $1.3 billion on advancing a James Price Point development. For the Federal Government to turn around and not support a positive EPA recommendation would further heighten Australia's sovereign risk rating.
But Environs Kimberley spokesman Martin Pritchard said the only choice the Government had now was to appoint a new panel.
"Otherwise, this could drag through the courts for some time and will never be seen as a legitimate decision," he said.
Greens MLA Robin Chapple attacked the EPA's processes. He said EPA board member Chris Whitaker had first declared a conflict of interest in the Browse development on October 1, 2009 because he and his wife owned Woodside shares. "This was ruled by the EPA chair as having no potential or actual conflict of interest," Mr Chapple said.
Woodside said it "looked forward to the release of the EPA report".
Woodside and its partners do not expect to make a final investment decision until the first half of next year, assuming the project is viable.
The partners, including Chevron, Shell, BP and BHP Billiton, are receiving tenders for both onshore and offshore components of the project. They are said to be split over whether to process Browse gas at James Price Point or at existing facilities in Karratha.