of a presumed thylacine, an extinct mammal, now itself to be destroyed
by the state government of Western Australia in an act of state
Address to the National Trust of Australia (WA) on 7 April 2003
by The Hon. COLIN J. BARNETT, MLA
Leader of the Opposition
BURRUP ROCK ART - Protecting heritage and sustaining development
All too often conservation and development are portrayed as
opposites, however, that need not be the case. And while no one would
deny that mistakes have been made in the past, these do not excuse
mistakes made today.
The Burrup Peninsula is a classic case of competing conservation and development goals.
Iron-ore handling facilities, natural gas for domestic and export
markets, evaporative salt fields and support services for off-shore
petroleum exploration already form an industry base of national
importance. The massive gas reserves now proven have the potential to
establish the area as the most significant industrial complex in
Australia over the next 30 years.
The ‘Burrup’ also happens to be the site of one of the world’s
great heritage treasures. Put simply, it hosts the largest
concentration of ancient rock art known.
The challenge is to protect this unique heritage while at the same
time achieving the economic potential of our huge gas reserves —
arguably Australia’s most valuable natural resource for this century.
It is not a matter of trading off one objective against the other,
but rather of ‘thinking outside of the box’ and realising both economic
development and heritage values.
The Aboriginal rock art (or petroglyphs) on the Burrup are
estimated to number about 300 000 across some 2000 sites. This is by
far the largest concentration, or ‘gallery’, in the world. The rock art
is ancient with most examples believed to be 6000 to 8000 years old.
Some of the older examples are estimated at 10 000 years.
To give a perspective, this rock art is at least twice the age of the Egyptian pyramids and is clearly of world significance.
The carvings have been made in weathered rock by a percussion
action that has exposed the lighter colour rock below the surface.
About half of the carvings are schematic shapes and patterns. Human and
animal motifs are common including turtles, fish, birds, emus and
Although noted by explorers around the mid-19th century, the
region’s rock art remained largely unknown until the 1960s. The first
study was conducted by the WA Museum in 1964 [at nearby Depuch Island]
in response to the initial industrial development in the area.
The area includes other ancient man-made features including
‘standing’ stones and walled structures. Little is known or understood
As well as this rich natural history, the Pilbara also has a
fabulous natural resource endowment. The region is the location of one
of the two great iron-ore provinces of the world. The first development
of this resource was the Mt Tom Price mine with associated port, rail
and township facilities at Dampier. A causeway was constructed which
converted Dampier Island into what is now known as the Burrup
The first iron-ore exports by Hamersley Iron took place in 1966.
The Dampier solar salt fields were also commenced in the late 1960s.
Natural gas was discovered in offshore waters in 1971. The
development of the subsequent North West Shelf Project saw domestic gas
supplies to Perth and the south-west from 1984 with the first LNG
exports in 1989.
The construction of these huge projects inevitably resulted in the
loss of a significant number of rock art sites. It is estimated that
around 20-25% of all petroglyphs were destroyed. From the site of the
gas facilities, some 2000 engraved boulders were removed and placed in
‘temporary storage’, where they remain today.
What is done is done. The point is that with today’s understanding
of the importance of this heritage there is a clear responsibility to
make the right decisions for the future.
BURRUP MANAGEMENT PLAN
The re-structuring of long-term gas supply contracts in 1995
brought about an immediate deregulation of gas prices in the Pilbara.
The price of natural gas for prospective major projects fell by about
half to a value well below that of North America and Europe. The
political stability of Australia coupled with the rapid market growth
for chemicals in Asia sparked an immediate interest in gas processing
At the same time a consortium of Dowell-Shell was studying the
potential for a world-scale petrochemical plant based on the increasing
supply of ethane associated with rising gas production.
The problem was where to locate these potential investments. A
problem compounded by the lack of infrastructure (i.e. power, water,
transport) and the economic imperative to achieve a synergy of the
plants being co-located to facilitate ‘over the fence’ trade and cost
sharing on common services.
The Burrup Peninsula Land Use Plan and Management Strategy (1996)
was an attempt to balance industry, conservation and heritage needs.
More than half (62%) of the Peninsula was set aside for
conservation, heritage and recreation uses. Five areas were identified
for industrial use, including the existing industrial leases. The
government of the day subsequently ruled out the most northerly of the
industry sites (Conzinc South) on the basis that industry should not
extend to the north of Withnell Bay.
That left the total of existing and prospective industry sites at
just 1,630 hectares. The largest prospective area and the only flat
(tidal) area for future development was Hearson Cove.
Land was allocated for three prospective projects in Hearson Cove
(Plenty River, now Dampier Nitrogen, Burrup Fertilisers; and
Syntroleum.). In 1999 a state government commitment of $30m to support
the establishment of common-user infrastructure (water supply, port
upgrade, service corridor and road works) on a user-pays basis was
There would remain the potential for perhaps another 2 to 3 medium
sized projects in Hearson Cove. Thereafter the area would have achieved
In the meantime it had become obvious that there was no area large
enough to accommodate an integrated petrochemical complex. West
Intercourse Island was examined as an option, though this area was rich
in rock art presenting the same problems of past developments.
It was from these constraints on industrial development that
planning began for a ‘greenfields’ industrial site to the south of the
MAITLAND INDUSTRIAL ESTATE
Hearson Cove could only ever be a small-scale industry site to
accommodate immediate projects. Neither it nor any other site on the
Burrup could physically accommodate the full potential of a world-scale
The development of the Maitland site to the south was always an
economic imperative. Preliminary planning in the late 1990s designated
a large and flat area of about 4000 hectares at Maitland with the
appropriate zoning and infrastructure plans in place. The Maitland
estate would be connected by a transport corridor to future shipping
facilities off West Intercourse Island.
The ultimate development of Maitland would be expensive with
estimates of about $300 million. Development would, however, be staged
and carried out concurrently with the construction of industrial
projects. The $300 million figure also should be considered in the
context of the current government’s promises of $134 million to support
what can only ever be a restricted development on the Burrup itself.
IMPACT OF INDUSTRIAL EMISSIONS
Airborne emissions are an inevitable consequence of heavy industry.
The existing projects on the Burrup produce mainly carbon dioxide (CO2)
emissions from power generation and as a waste component of natural gas
reservoirs. These greenhouse gases, while of global significance, pose
no direct threat to the rock art.
Gas processing plants may well be a different story. The process of
chemical change gives rise to a wider ‘cocktail’ of emissions. The
production of nitric and sulphur oxides creates the basis of an ‘acid
Somewhat ironically, the potential danger may be exacerbated by the
arid climate with atmospheric deposits building up on rock surfaces
only to turn acidic when moisture is present.
There is a genuine concern within the scientific community that
such a process may erase the rock art within a comparatively short
period. The point is, we simply do not know.
The current government has established a Burrup Rock Art Monitoring
Committee to conduct a four-year study. However, it is problematic if
the answer can be found in that time period when the preliminary task
of properly recording the rock art has not even been done.
THE WAY FORWARD
Not surprisingly, the Burrup rock art is rapidly gaining
international attention. In some quarters, there are already calls for
a world heritage listing. Until the land-use issues are properly
resolved, such a listing would be premature. However, this potential
status will inevitably be a factor in ‘due diligence’ for project
At a local level, the tourist potential of such an ancient and unique site is only now being recognised.
The way forward is to ensure the protection and integrity of the
rock art. Any further physical disturbance should be kept to a minimum
as should the threat of chemical deterioration. The landscape setting
is essential to the overall amenity of the area in order that future
generations can also experience and discover for themselves this
For industry, a bold step is required. Some industry can be
accommodated at Hearson Cove. Thereafter future projects will need to
be at a modified Maitland Estate.
For this to occur the planning and development of Maitland must be re-started as a matter of priority.
Even current proposals should be offered, without duress, a
Maitland alternative. The prospect of lower construction costs, greater
security for finance providers and savings through a more widely shared
infrastructure and utilities may well prove attractive.
Failure to act boldly may see further examples of valued projects being either abandoned or delayed.
This is not a case of finding an uneasy compromise, but rather of
seeing the bigger picture and grasping the opportunities presented by
the coincidence of Australia’s most significant heritage site and a
fabulous wealth of natural resources.