Tracking Onslow: Journalists Recording Impact Over Time

There are competing narratives in the Australian public sphere about mineral extraction. Keen on royalties, the current pro-extraction conservative state and federal governments argue that extraction boosts employment and provides trickle-down financial benefits to local businesses and communities. However, a left-wing think tank, the Australia Institute, has questioned the mathematics and modeling behind these claims (Richardson 2009; Campbell 2014), even as left-wing parties have argued that extraction companies should pay more taxes (Brown, Clout, and Ferguson 2015). In response, extraction companies have invested in securing a social license to operate by funding social projects in host communities, such as Onslow, and in associated population centers, such as Western Austalia’s capital city of Perth (Krzywosinski 2014). Anti-extraction arguments are most often voiced by scientists and activists from places other than the host communities, and traditionally center on concern for the environment.

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Onslow's Sunset Beach. Photo by Kayt Davies.

In the Pilbara, mineral extraction can occur at a site regardless of whether it has existing community infrastructure, and an industry has arisen to provide housing and services for workforces in places without it. New mines in remote locations sprout work camps and villages provided by companies that specialize in temporary remote housing and provisioning services. Onslow, on the other hand, is already populated and has a history stretching back to 1885 that includes sheep farming (which has since given way to cattle farming), pearling and fishing. In the 1990s, Onslow embraced salt production and, until recently, described itself as a fishing village with a tourism industry. Onslow’s existing populace, counted at 667 in 2011, already has opinions about the future of the town.

In the Pilbara, mineral extraction can occur at a site regardless of whether it has existing community infrastructure, and an industry has arisen to provide housing and services for workforces in places without it. New mines in remote locations sprout work camps and villages provided by companies that specialize in temporary remote housing and provisioning services. Onslow, on the other hand, is already populated and has a history stretching back to 1885 that includes sheep farming (which has since given way to cattle farming), pearling and fishing. In the 1990s, Onslow embraced salt production and, until recently, described itself as a fishing village with a tourism industry. Onslow’s existing populace, counted at 667 in 2011, already has opinions about the future of the town.

The Tracking Onslow Project was initiated in 2012 as a collaboration between Onslow’s local government (the Shire of Ashburton) and Edith Cowan University. The project was designed to use journalism as a research methodology to document physical changes in Onslow, as well as changes in community perceptions of Chevron Australia’s Wheatstone and BHP Billiton’s Macedon Natural Gas projects. The Shire provided some funding and a guarantee of editorial noninterference, and the university provided a lecturer with expertise and students to produce a series of six magazines over a three-year period. The project was based on the premise that quality journalism serves three political functions: it creates a first draft of history, it provides a “town square” where a range of views can be aired and shared; and it plays a watchdog role. In August 2015, the sixth and final edition was published on the website as a flick-zine and as a print magazine distributed through the Onslow post office. The following paragraphs summarize the sentiments expressed by various stakeholders, which were captured, curated, and placed into the public record through this project.

The construction phase of the $1.43 billion Macedon joint venture (led by BHP Billiton) ran from 2012–2013, during which 330 workers were housed at its camp twelve kilometers out of town. Since completion, the workforce of around sixteen people has been accommodated in an apartment complex in town. This project has been met with almost no contention. In contrast, the $29 billion Chevron-led Wheatstone joint venture has generated a significant amount of controversy. The construction phase of the joint venture is running from 2011–2016, with employment predicted to peak at 7,000. After construction, the plant will employ 225 people.

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Wheatstone Glass with beachfront reflected. Photo by Kayt Davies.

According to the 2011 census, 26 percent of Onslow’s populace (177 out of 667 people) are indigenous people. A background report by the Shire of Ashburton (2010, 12) notes that indigenous people living in Onslow are from five different Pilbara language groups: (1) Nhuwala, Thalanyji and Burama; (2) Punjima (Bunjima) and Innawonga; (3) Yindjibarndi; (4) Ngarluma; and (5) Martuthinira. The report also acknowledges that “the introduction of the Pastoral Award in 1968 led to large numbers of Aboriginal people leaving their traditional lands which, with the arrival of Europeans in the nineteenth century, had been taken up as pastoral stations. While most Aboriginal people lived in inland areas, the government established camps in the coastal areas of Onslow and Roebourne. As such, Onslow accommodates Aboriginal people from the inland Pilbara.” Despite the diversity of indigenous groups, the distribution of benefits from development can often be uneven. The native title system, lauded by Marcia Langton (2012), forces mining companies to financially compensate native titleholders. In the case of the Wheatstone and Macedon projects, however, the exclusive beneficiaries of this compensation were the Thalanyji people (represented by the Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation), who were granted native title over the site of the gas projects in 2008. The only benefits to flow to the indigenous people of other language groups has been though relatively small-scale, generic health and social programs, such as the Pilbara Earbus, which provides hearing tests for all indigenous children.  

At the outset of the Wheatstone project, Chevron Australia (n.d.) committed more than $250 million to social and infrastructure projects in Onslow, which the company said would “include upgrading community facilities, education and health services and roads and water infrastructure.” So far, progress on these upgrades has been patchy and protracted, possibly because they are dependent on collaboration with the state government departments responsible for health, education, and roads and water. In many cases negotiations with these departments have been painfully slow. Frustrations have risen to the point that Onslow locals have declared that the town has “missed the boat,” predicting that it will not experience the projected population increase to 2,000 people by 2020 because its infrastructure was not in place in time to coincide with the Wheatstone construction. In light of these delays, Chevron met the need for housing and food for its workers by employing strategies used in extraction locations without existing communities. Temporary accommodation was trucked in and will be packed up and moved once the construction phase of the project is over.

One of the first big changes brought by the gas projects was the sealing of the eighty- kilometer gravel road that linked Onslow to the nearest highway. While in many ways this was appreciated, it also took from the town some of the romance associated with being remote. Dredging associated with the gas hub construction disrupted the town’s fishing industry to the extent that the last fishing operator closed shop in 2013, and while beds in tourism facilities have been filled to capacity with construction workers (providing a boon to the operators), the town has perceived a loss of its identity as a site of idyllic tourism. The pressure for accommodation saw rents rise dramatically, driving some locals out of town. At the same time, an influx of newcomers led locals to wistfully reflect on the days “when you knew everyone else shopping in the local store.”

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Building boom. Photo by Kayt Davies.

Members of the community said that they have perceived losses and are confused about the source of the delays in the promised projects. They have lashed out at both Chevron and the local and state governments over what they see as broken promises. The key participants in the debate are community leaders from the Onslow Chamber of Commerce and Industry (OCCI), the president of the elected Shire of Ashburton Council, the appointed CEO of the Shire of Ashburton, state government agencies, and Chevron, with occasional contributions from local mining magnate and pastoralist Andrew Forrest.

At times, various parties have been at loggerheads, but at other times allegiances have formed, often underpinned by funding or the hope of forthcoming funding from Chevron. The situation became particularly volatile in mid-2014 when the state government allowed Chevron to renege on an agreement to build accommodation for its 225-person workforce in town, as opposed to near the construction site (twelve kilometers out of town). The OCCI and the council were so enraged that a plan was drawn up to travel to the United States to take up the matter at Chevron’s global headquarters. As tempers settled, the Shire and the OCCI employed media experts and lobbyists to raise state government awareness of their concerns.

Wheatstone is now in its final year of construction, and most of the major upgrades are still works in progress. The fifth edition of Tracking Onslow reported that many local stakeholders were feeling deceived and disrespected. This sentiment was expressed again by some locals in the sixth edition, although OCCI reported some progress with efforts to boost employment of local contractors at the Wheatstone site. The Onslow story stands in contrast to the more common environmental arguments against extraction projects. In this context, the concerns revolve around community, the value of promises, and the bitterness of disappointment. Many of the people with whom I spoke are not happy about the situation, but they appreciate that observers are recording their story as a cautionary tale to others.

References

Brown, Philip R., Victoria Clout, and Andrew Ferguson. 2015. “Market Reactions to the Proposed Resources Rent Tax.” Paper presented at the 6th Financial Markets and Corporate Governance Conference, Fremantle, Western Australia, January 15.

Campbell, Rod. 2014. “Are There 27,000 Jobs in the Galilee Basin?” Briefing note, January. Canberra: The Australia Institute.

Chevron Australia. n.d. “Chevron in Onslow: Providing Long-Term Benefits to the Onslow Community.”

Langton, Marcia. 2012. “2012 Boyer Lectures. The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom.” Radio National, November 18–December 2.

Krzywosinski, Roy. 2014. “AMCHAM [American Chamber of Commerce in Australia] Business Briefing.” Media statement, Chevron Australia. 

Richardson, David. 2009. “The Benefits of the Mining Boom: Where Did They Go?” Technical Brief no. 3, May. Canberra: The Australia Institute.  

Shire of Ashburton. 2010. “Onslow Townsite Strategy Background Report.”