Marian Wilkinson Environment Editor
DURING the Vietnam War the apocryphal order, ''we have to burn the village to save it'', became shorthand for the flawed thinking of commanders.
The Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, might well contemplate this after yesterday giving his conditional approval to clear the way for the unique nature reserve on Barrow Island to become a massive processing hub for the Gorgon gas project. In Canberra, the justification for sacrificing Barrow, a refuge for animals rare or extinct elsewhere, is that the developers, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, want to help save the planet.
The companies argue that 2.5 kilometres beneath Barrow Island is a geological formation where they can bury the greenhouse gas emissions that will be released during the extraction of the vast natural gas reserves.
The Gorgon reserves are far heavier in carbon dioxide than many so dealing with the huge greenhouse footprint was a stumbling block for the project. But politicians on both sides, state and federal, ''crawled over cut glass'', as WWF's Paul Gamblin puts it, to ensure the $50 billion development could go ahead.
Gorgon was cheered on by WA's politicians even though the state's Environmental Protection Authority emphatically opposed it. WWF and other environment groups pleaded for the processing hub to be moved to the mainland. But the Howard government and then federal Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, endorsed the original proposal.
When the developers pushed for a bigger processing hub on Barrow, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd hailed it as a godsend for the economy before Garrett could even bring down his assessment on the new proposal. Garrett's limited intervention yesterday was largely to call for better monitoring of the fragile wildlife on the island.
But there are doubts that the companies' climate-friendly plan to bury its greenhouse gases under Barrow will be successful. An expert panel found that some leakage of carbon dioxide is possible. And even if the plan meets expectations, it will still only reduce the project's overall emissions by 40 per cent. It's estimated 5.45 million tonnes of carbon pollution will still be released by the Gorgon project each year helping to make WA one of the most carbon intensive states in the world.