On Wednesday, 26 June 2024 the two-day 2024 Pilbara Summit (Summit) commenced in 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 and investment opportunities, social trends and challenges and other topics of national and global significance for the Pilbara and its people.

Gilbert + Tobin was once again proud to be the Lead Knowledge Partner for the Summit. G+T used 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 and decarbonisation initiatives across the region. We explored the opportunities presented by the government’s Future Made in Australia Act, in ensuring it will be a future made for all Australians. We also heard about real progress on crucial enabling infrastructure for the next phase of Pilbara development, as well as the barriers in place putting us behind in the race to decarbonisation.  

Below are our key takeaways from the Summit.

Australia behind in the race 

The key focus of the 2023 Summit was acknowledging the risk of climate change and the opportunity and necessity of clean energy and decarbonisation. Nine months later it was a widely held view at the Summit that WA and Australia had already fallen behind. "Behind in the race to decarbonisation", "losing the war for green electrons", and "already lost our competitive advantage" were all phrases delivered with frustration by speakers at the Summit.

In the keynote address, Dr Alan Finkel AC, Corporate Adviser on Low Emissions Technology & former Australian Chief Scientist and Special Adviser to the Australian Government, highlighted government systemic barriers to project approvals and deployment of already available technologies as the key reason for the slow progress. These barriers come from a ponderous regulatory system that is focused on protecting or facilitating, rather than protecting and facilitating. Dr Finkel put forward an alternate model that utilises an overriding public interest consideration, a solution to what he described as the current ‘regulatory myopia’.

Dr Finkel also looked to the ‘Pilbara of the future’, such as opportunities in metals processing (rare earths, copper and aluminium), value-added green battery chemicals and Pilbara green iron production, which will be powered by cheap, green electricity, and the role that government will play in the Future Made in Australia program. Dr Finkel stated that climate change is happening faster than anticipated, citing global average surface temperatures in the last year of 1.48 degrees Celsius, which meant it was inconceivable that the world would lose interest in value-added decarbonised exports from the Pilbara.

Others pointed to industry and the lack of meaningful collaboration as a significant hindrance towards decarbonisation progress. BHP’s WA Iron Ore President, Tim Day, may have been listening to that critique when he used the Summit to call for greater collaboration to build an interconnected Pilbara energy grid to help the Pilbara region’s heavyweights decarbonise. Mr Day called for industry and government to redouble their efforts, and focus on infrastructure, road safety, and other mutual interests. Similarly, Richard Cohen from Rio Tinto, announced that Rio Tinto and BHP were sharing data from electrification trials for haul trucks.

Some green shoots for approvals

The road to environmental approvals for projects in WA in particular is currently a winding one, with bottlenecks in environmental approval processes creating extensive delays in project approvals, trapping actual and potential investment. This has led WA Premier Roger Cook to bluntly state that the “system isn’t working”. 

While frustration with approvals was widespread, it was also acknowledged that just one week before the Summit, the WA Government approved the first project assessed under its Green Energy Approvals Initiative. The Green Energy Approvals Initiative is a cross-government collaboration to deliver faster environmental approvals for renewable energy projects.

Several speakers at the Summit spoke of their dealings with the new Green Energy Approvals team and the efficient and driven approach to the streamlined process. That early feedback seems consistent with the sentiment of Environment and Climate Action Minister Reece Whitby, who has emphasised the importance of cutting red tape and accelerating clean energy projects to make WA a renewable energy powerhouse. The first project approved was the Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation’s (YEC), in partnership with ACEN Australia, 150 megawatts solar project within the Yindjibarndi Native Title Determination Area in the Pilbara region.

The Green Energy Approvals Initiative is a positive start, but as identified by the recently completed WA Government commissioned ‘Vogel-McFerran Review’, WA's environmental approval processes and procedures require further streamlining. The Vogel-McFerran Review produced 39 recommendations, all of which have been either accepted or noted by the government. G+T’s Energy + Resources team has previously prepared an article identifying the issues with current environmental approval processes, examining the likely effect that the implementation of key recommendations from the Vogel-McFerran Review will have on project proponents and industry, and setting out how these recommendations align WA’s regulatory focus with topics of national and global importance. Read it here: G+T Environmental Approvals and the Vogel-McFerran Review.

The (ongoing) need for genuine partnerships with Traditional Owners 

Consistent with last year's Summit, this theme continues to be an important issue for organisations operating in the region. The ongoing push for decarbonisation, as well as the increasing emphasis on the critical minerals sector, demands the utilisation of large swathes of land in the Pilbara. This requirement of additional land will necessitate genuine engagement and partnership with the Traditional Owners of that land.

Genuine partnerships cannot be rushed or outsourced - building trust is essential, and that process can take time. As Roanna Edwards, Partner of PwC Indigenous Consulting, noted in her presentation, engaging with Traditional Owners in the region requires a deep understanding and commitment beyond transactional interactions. Transactional engagements are ineffective because Traditional Owners tend to prioritise relationships and long-term benefits to the Community over short-term gains. Organisations must be willing to invest time and effort in understanding Traditional Owners' values and the broader cultural context of a proposed engagement.

Ms Edwards also highlighted that negotiations and differences over value are a common area of challenge in developing these partnerships. What a company might see as commercial value can differ significantly from what Traditional Owners value, particularly concerning land and generational impact. Understanding the collectivist principles and obligations to the Country that often guide Traditional Owners can help bridge these gaps. Effective engagement requires acknowledging and respecting these differences, which in the long run will lead to more meaningful and productive partnerships.

It all boils down to water

The need for large-scale water supply quickly emerged as a hot topic at this year’s Summit with both industry and Traditional Owners, emphasising the demand for sustainable water solutions is at the core of the clean energy transition. Ken Walker, Director of Ngarluma Aboriginal Corporation (NAC), explained the significance of water from a cultural perspective and the need to protect and preserve the Pilbara’s groundwater resources. Water management has historically been an afterthought, and not at the forefront of project planning. Bob Kinnell, Technical Director – Integrated Mine Water Management, GHD urged the audience to shift their mindset and begin to treat water as a precious resource, rather than a waste product. This messaging was echoed by Daniel Lambert, Managing Director of Legacie Water Infrastructure Developers (LWID). Daniel introduced LWID as Australia’s newest water infrastructure developer, with a focus on delivering ethical water solutions, in collaboration with Traditional Owners. LWID has listened to the needs of NAC and is committed to developing, in partnership with NAC and Suez, a desalination plant in the Balla Balla region of the Pilbara with a capacity to deliver up to 150GL of water per annum. This will provide a water source to fuel the green energy transition in the Pilbara and deliver long-term benefits to the Ngarluma People.

Equally as significant for the region as the project itself will be, is the relationship formed between NAC and the project developers. Ken Walker spoke at the Summit about partnerships and relationships, not just consultation and engagement. That sentiment and a focus on recalibrating the way relationships are formed with Traditional Owners was echoed by others, providing a blueprint for project proponents to work side-by-side with Traditional Owners for the life of a project. 

Unlocking the Pilbara

On Day 2 of the Summit, we heard from government representatives who emphasised the critical role Strategic Industrial Areas (SIAs) will play in unlocking regional development pathways for our future. Importantly, the need for the government to actively progress the development of SIAs for investment in large-scale projects was also addressed. Although SIAs provide a unique opportunity to exploit natural resources, utilise skilled regional workforces and establish infrastructure with Traditional Owners, and are critical to supporting investment in industrial development in the regions, they are only one part of the regional ecosystem. There has been a movement within government and industry to recognise and consider the impacts that the Pilbara’s transition into a global renewables heavyweight has and will continue to have, on the community and Country. To protect the Country, the government has listened to Traditional Owners and has modernised its approach to agreement-making, focusing on ensuring long-term benefits and a continued voice for Traditional Owners.  

We are also now hearing about real progress on the crucial enabling infrastructure for the next phase of Pilbara development and discussing how this development can be, and is being, done differently to before – collaboration being the word of the week.  

Strong communities 

The 'S' in ESG can be challenging for companies that are looking to operate, or are already operating, in the Pilbara. This challenge is compounded by the Pilbara’s sheer cultural diversity, with over 30 distinct Aboriginal cultural groups in the region. 

Allan Tranter, Founding Director of Creating Communities, emphasised that promoting strong communities in the Pilbara is critical to companies social licences to operate in the region. The Pilbara is home to many people living in towns across a vast area. As Mr Tranter noted, the cultures, the challenges facing communities and the solutions to those challenges differ markedly across the region. There is no 'one size fits all' approach to promoting strong communities in the region. That said, it should be noted that a common issue with corporate social engagement in the Pilbara is the relatively short 'length of stay' of companies and their workers in communities. The importance of making a generational commitment (instead of a short-term commitment) to communities is critical to strengthening those communities in the future. Companies should look to making generational commitments to communities to make lasting positive social impacts in the region.  

Decarbonising Australia: Policy Pulse Check

Successfully achieving the legislated target of net zero by 2050 will require immense effort – politically, culturally and legally. While we are in the initial stages of this endeavour, Summit speakers pointed out a concerning gap between the current rate of progress and what is needed to reach the target.

G+T has surveyed active industry participants on the legal, political and commercial challenges they are facing on the journey towards decarbonisation. These insights have been collated together, and are supplemented by analysis from G+T’s partners and other thought leaders who are advising the businesses that are driving Australia’s energy transition. The report aims to provoke discussion about the areas that Australia must prioritise, and is available here.