On Tuesday, 10 October the two-day 2023 Pilbara Summit (Summit) commenced on Ngarluma Country in Karratha, WA.  The annual event brings together Industry and Government and a wide range of other stakeholders to delve into economic growth, investment opportunities and regional development across the Pilbara. 

Gilbert + Tobin was proudly the Lead Knowledge Partner for the 2023 Pilbara Summit. Reflecting on experiences and insights gained from the 2022 Summit, G+T made the decision to use the platform to highlight the importance of engaging with First Nations people and creating genuine partnerships, particularly as we move forward with significant investment in clean energy across the region.

Below are our 7 key takeaways from the Pilbara Summit 2023. 

1. Clean energy and decarbonisation – an opportunity and now a necessity

Unsurprisingly, the key theme of the Summit this year was clean energy and decarbonisation.  92% of regional businesses in WA believe climate change is a risk to their business (Source: Horizon Power) and almost all organisations presenting at the Summit spoke about their decarbonisation plans.

With an abundance of sun, wind and land and the Pilbara’s proximity to Asian markets, the region presents an ideal location for green energy exports.  Of the $177 billion in capex on future projects planned for the Pilbara, $82 billion of these are clean energy projects, dwarfing the $38.6 billion planned for mining and $24.6 billion for oil & gas (Source: Pilbara Development Commission).

The transition will stimulate job creation, attract investment, and promote local economic growth. Further, by embracing renewables, the Pilbara can diversify its energy sources, enhancing its resilience and sustainability.

2. The Pilbara’s global significance

With $77.8 billion in gross regional product coming from the Pilbara as at June 2023, the region is equivalent to the 75th largest economy in the world.  It is not surprising the Pilbara has gained international recognition for the economic opportunities available and further, the significance of the region’s role in global decarbonisation.

This was reinforced with Summit attendees receiving addresses from Her Excellency Ms Anne Grete Riise, Ambassador of Norway and Kambiz Mohkam, Head of the Regional Economic Department in the French Embassy in Australia. Both Norway and France are strongly invested in decarbonisation and their interest in the Pilbara was both noteworthy and welcomed.

3. Agreement making with Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation

In his keynote address, G+T partner Michael Blakiston outlined the new form of agreement making which Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) is developing with those from Government and Industry having activity on Murujuga Country. This agreement making project has been funded by the Federal Government and represents a new approach for agreement making across Australia. It reflects the importance of aligning with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples principle of obtaining free, prior and informed consent from our First Nations people – not “procuring or luring” consent as some First Nations have described as their past experiences.  Once developed there will be a transformational agreement-making model which seeks to, among other things:

  • ensure any project development or expansion on Murujuga Country meets the fundamental requirement of obtaining and maintaining free, prior and informed consent;
  • create a values-based partnership which values cultural authority and cultural heritage;
  • include equitable sharing of economic benefits derived on country; and
  • provide certainty of process for those wishing to undertake activity on Murujuga Country.

This model may be a benchmark for agreements with First Nations people going forward.

4. Lessons from Canada

On transforming our approach to Traditional Owner engagement and agreement making, Canadian Aboriginal law expert Thomas Isaac of Cassels provided insight into the current approach in Canada.  For the last 30-plus years, the Canadian Government has had a duty to consult with Aboriginal people if activities may impact potential interests of Aboriginal people – a right enshrined in the Constitution of Canada.  This is a very low threshold, which means the obligation is often enlivened.  Further, it is the Canadian Government’s duty to reconcile the different interests of Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people.   Over the last three decades, Industry has adapted to incorporate this consultation and agreement-making obligation into its key risk assessment for project development, which undoubtedly has benefited all stakeholders involved.  Thomas also highlighted the capacity support Industry in Canada provided to its Traditional Owners.

5. The need for genuine partnerships with Traditional Owners

With the Pilbara accounting for 20% of national safeguard mechanism emissions, decarbonisation of Pilbara operations is an imperative, given Australia’s net zero commitment by 2050.  The push to net zero places a large demand on land utilisation, emphasising the importance of early, transparent and genuine engagement with Traditional Owners as the custodians of the land.

G+T partner Marshall McKenna moderated a panel discussion on maximising the opportunity to decarbonise projects, giving the stage to First Nations people for the first time at a Pilbara Summit.  Hearing from Kate George of Clayplan Services Pty Ltd, Ken Walker of Ngarluma Aboriginal Corporation and Lawford Benning of MG Corporation,  it was evident Traditional Owners are seeking opportunities for genuine partnerships.  Industry must recognise the Indigenous Land Use Agreement approach, typically known for its compensation component, is not fit for purpose in the next wave of development.

Importantly, over the course of the Pilbara Summit, key industry players acknowledged the importance of engagement and empowerment of Traditional Owners.  Making public statements like this is the first step in the right direction – it is now crucial those players walk the talk, including by assisting Traditional Owners with capacity building. Having said this, the experiences of some Traditional Owners is not aligning with their expectations on how to be consulted and engaged with.

6. Be brave and make hard decisions

As CEO Stephanie Unwin pointed out, for Horizon Power to realise its commitment of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, hard decisions need to be made.  Although we may not know exactly what the Pilbara’s wider industrial landscape will look like in 20 years, investment now in infrastructure, technology and communities is crucial to ensure decarbonisation goals of businesses - and our nation - can be achieved.  Further, there was a consensus between many presenters at the Summit that collaboration amongst stakeholders will be central to achieving this, including optimising common use infrastructure.  Horizon Power’s experience at Denham demonstrates that the transition to clean energy will not be straightforward but failures should not deter forward progress.

7. Development of the hydrogen industry

It is clear the development of a hydrogen industry is central to what many industries and companies want to do in the Pilbara.  With that in mind, Yara Pilbara’s Project Yuri – maybe the most advanced renewable hydrogen project under development in Australia – bears close watching.  Further, the success of large projects like the Australian Renewable Energy Hub will be critical to decarbonising the region, with the potential to abate 1.7 Mt carbon per annum with a 26GW production capacity.

Katie Cook, Director of the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation’s Hydrogen Unit noted the opening of expressions of interest for the Hydrogen Headstart Program, which will provide up to $2 billion of funding support to large-scale renewable hydrogen projects.

2024 and beyond: Pilbara’s Sustainability Journey

In conclusion, the 2023 Pilbara Summit marked a pivotal moment in the region's journey toward sustainable growth and development.  With Gilbert + Tobin leading the way as the Lead Knowledge Partner, the event underscored the critical importance of genuine partnerships with Traditional Owners and the imperative of obtaining free, prior, and informed consent.  As we look ahead, the insights and commitments made by Industry and Government during this years’ Summit are poised to shape the Pilbara's future, ushering in a new era of responsible and sustainable development.  With the conference getting bigger and better with each year, G+T looks forward to again being the Lead Knowledge Partner for the 2024 Pilbara Summit.

We are currently producing a research backed White Paper on the opportunities and challenges arising from Australia’s decarbonisation journey. Click below to sign up to be one of the first to receive our report and to register an interest in participating in ongoing discussions.

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