UPDATE: The Environmental Protection Authority has recommended that the $40 billion Browse LNG project be approved.
The EPA's recommendation was released today after the State Solictor cleared the authority's handling of the environmental assessment process.
Environment Minister Bill Marmion said earlier today that he had approved the EPA making a delegation specific to the assessment of the Browse LNG Precinct at James Price Point after four EPA board members had recused themselves because of conflicts of interest.
The directors' recusal meant EPA chairman Dr Paul Vogel would take a solo vote on the $40 billion development.
Dr Vogel said this morning the Browse proposal was the most complex in the EPA's 40-year history.
“The level of complexity in assessing this proposal was unprecedented,” Dr Vogel said.
“After carefully considering each environmental factor, I have recommended a rigorous set of 29 conditions and offsets to ensure the EPA’s environmental objectives are met.”
These included protection of marine fauna including whales from possible oil spills or dredging spoil.
Dr Vogel rejected suggestions that the process was flawed, and noted it had involved an extensive consultation process.
“The assessment has been incredibly thorough and included wide consultation with community members and scientific experts, site visits and meetings with interest groups,” he said.
The EPA chairman said the precinct, which will produce up to 50 million tonnes of LNG per year from the Browse basin at a site 60km north of Broome, provides for multiple users to be co-located on a single site, avoiding a number of LNG processing sites to spread along the coast and in more sensitive parts of the Kimberley.
It has also allowed the consideration of the cumulative environmental impacts of future projects, known as derived proposals.
Dr Vogels said he expected a significant number of appeals during the two-week appeal window, and possible additional legal challenges.
The Wilderness Society said it was considering a legal challenge to the “flawed” process.
Acting Premier and acting State Development Minister Kim Hames welcomed the conditional approval recommendation.
Last month, Mr Marmion delayed the release of an EPA report on the Browse project because he wanted to seek legal advice on the matter from the State Solicitor's Office.
"Based on the advice received from the State Solicitor's Office, I have approved the EPA making a delegation specific to the assessment of the Browse LNG Precinct," Mr Marmion said in a statement today.
"I believe the EPA has taken the appropriate course of action and have confidence in the integrity of the EPA chairman Dr Paul Vogel, to provide me with informed advice and recommendations on the project.
"In light of the public statements made at the time questioning the appropriateness of the EPA's process, I decided it was proper to seek legal advice from the State Solicitor's Office before releasing the report.
"The proposal is extremely complex and I wanted to ensure due process had been followed at all levels."
The Minister said the EPA's report, which was expected to be released at 11am today, would be subject to a two-week period within which any party that disagreed with its findings or recommendations could lodge an appeal.
"I will consider the EPA's report, any appeals, and consult with other Ministers and agencies before making my decision on whether the project should proceed," he said.
"It would be inappropriate for me to make comment on the EPA's report before then."
Environs Kimberley spokesman Martin Pritchard slammed the Minister’s decision and demanded he release details of the legal advice he had received.
“He has said this is the largest, most complex environmental assessment in WA’s history,” he said. “How can West Australians have any faith in this process when the project proponent, the State Government, is pushing for a decision to be made by one member of the EPA board.
“This is not a standard we would accept in industry and is certainly below what we expect from government.”
The Wilderness Society spokesman Peter Robertson said the process had been a “sham” and he was appalled at the State Government’s willingness to “destroy the credibility of the EPA in its pursuit of approval for the Premier's pet gas hub project”.
"Our legal advice demonstrates that the Minister could have approved the delegation of the EPA's decision on this assessment to a new panel of suitably qualified, non-conflicted people, but he chose not to,” he said.
"As a result, the EPA's report arising from a one person assessment has no standing.
“However well-qualified Dr Vogel may be, the EPA is supposed to make decisions via a deliberative process involving at least three members.
"We expect the Commonwealth to take a very dim view of this sham process and to demand a lot of additional information before forming its view on whether or not to approve the project."
The EPA's report is 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.
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, BHP Billiton and Mitsui-Mitsubishi, are receiving tenders for both onshore and offshore components.
They are said to be split over whether to process Browse gas at James Price Point or at existing facilities in Karratha.