Traditional custodians demand apology from Woodside

Traditional rock art on red rocks on the Burrup Peninsula (custodians woodside)

Traditional custodians have made a heartfelt plea for oil and gas giant Woodside Petroleum to issue a public apology for the destruction of more than 4,000 pieces of cultural heritage in the 1970s.

Kuruma Marthudunera woman, Josie Alec, and Mardudhunera woman, Raelene Cooper, both attended Woodside’s AGM in person to issue a heartfelt plea for an apology from CEO Meg O’Neill and chairman Richard Goyder.

Addressing O’Neill and Goyder directly, Josie Alec referred to the apology issued by Rio Tinto for the highly controversial destruction of culturally significant rock shelters at Juukan Gorge.

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“In the 1970s, Woodside destroyed between 4,000 and 5,000 pieces of rock art in the construction of the Karratha gas plant,” Alec said.

“Here, today, will you apologise for that destruction of our cultural heritage?”

Alec and Cooper are traditional custodians of Murujuga—also known as the Burrup Peninsula. The area is home to an estimated 1 million ancient petroglyphs—rock carvings which include illustrations of long-extinct species; depictions of human figures; maps and even some of the first images of European settlers and their ships. Some of the carvings are believed to be nearly 50,000 years old.

The area is currently the subject of a UNESCO world heritage bid, but the Burrup Peninsula is dominated by highly polluting heavy industry, of which Woodside is a significant part.

Issues around the protection of cultural heritage on Murujuga have been thrown into sharp focus by Woodside’s highly controversial Scarborough gas proposal, which analysts have suggested will produce 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon emissions over the next 25 years.

Emissions produced by heavy industry on the Burrup Peninsula have been found to eat away at the surface of the rock art, prompting fears that the world’s ‘oldest and largest art gallery’ could be gone within 100 years.

The issue has been described by traditional custodians and conservationists as ‘Juukan Gorge in slow motion’.

Raelene Cooper also addressed the Woodside AGM by reading from an open letter, delivered to the WA Government earlier this year, setting out the widespread community opposition to the Scarborough project and fears for the ‘damage that will be done to our own cultural heritage’ and that their country ‘would be used in a way that will harm people all over the world by accelerating global warming’.

The Woodside AGM was also attended by several, high profile experts and analysts from Australia’s leading conservation, environmental and shareholder advocacy groups who asked questions relating to the company’s merger with BHP and its climate plan.

The plan, which was put to a vote of shareholders, has been subject to criticism for being ‘light on detail’ and criticised for inadequate emissions reporting, notably around Scope 3 emissions.

At the commencement of the AGM, shareholders representing approximately 52 per cent of Woodside securities had participated in the non-binding, advisory vote on the company’s Climate Report. These votes have been split evenly for and against the report. 

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Woodside chairman Richard Goyder said, “Woodside’s Board and leadership team stands behind our climate strategy and its two key elements: to reduce our net equity scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions; and invest in the products and services our customers need, as they reduce their emissions. 

“We believe the Climate Report 2021 is an accurate and transparent summary of Woodside’s approach to climate change, and we are focused on delivering the commitments we have made in this report. 

“We acknowledge that the energy transition is a complex and ongoing process. Our shareholders’ views are important to us and will continue to inform our approach as it evolves,” he said.