A new form of engagement with Traditional Owners is essential for all parties to reap future opportunities in clean energy, mining and gas.

THE Pilbara is an economic powerhouse. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Pilbara comprises nearly 20 per cent of Western Australia’s GDP and more than 3 per cent of the nation’s, despite having just 0.2 per cent of the national population.

Meanwhile, as identified by the Pilbara Development Commission, $177 billion of projects sit in the development pipeline. Despite those sizeable figures, the Pilbara can become even bigger, brighter, and better through opportunities in clean energy and downstream processing, which both require a new form of Traditional Owner engagement. These were among the topics I spoke about recently at the Pilbara Summit in Karratha. Nearly half the projects in the Pilbara pipeline are in clean energy. Gas production and mining aren’t disappearing, but major trading partners have changing needs. Asia, in particular, seeks lower carbon energy and materials to balance continued economic growth with progress towards climate targets.

Shortly after the summit, South Korean steelmaker POSCO and French energy major Engie announced a Pilbara collaboration aimed at using renewable hydrogen to make green iron. During the summit itself, we learned about progress on the BP-backed Asian Renewable Energy Hub and Yara Pilbara’s green hydrogen facility, as well as decarbonisation plans from Rio Tinto, BHP, Woodside and Fortescue. An exciting aspect of clean energy growth in the Pilbara is that it will be progressed in partnership with First Nations people.

According to the Net Zero Australia study, 43 per cent of the renewable energy Australia requires to achieve its Paris Agreement targets will be produced on Indigenous land. Traditional owners speaking at the Pilbara Summit outlined projects they are working to progress or actively undertaking with industry partners. These included Pilbara Solar, a renewable energy company 50 per cent owned by Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, and Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation, one of Australia’s largest Indigenous-led renewable energy initiatives through partners Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation and ACEN Corporation. Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation is working with Rio Tinto on project development in the Pilbara.

To support and enable opportunities, agreement-making between industry and Traditional Owners must be modernised to reflect genuine partnership. The model of land access in exchange for compensation no longer meets society’s expectations and, most importantly, does not meet the desires or needs of Aboriginal people. Burrup Peninsula near Karratha is recognised for its remarkable environment and stunning rock art that is central to a World Heritage listing application.

I hope it will also receive attention for the first-of-its-kind agreement making model being developed by Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) with support from the federal government. Under this model, proponents will engage with traditional owners much earlier, presenting either the MAC board or another MAC body with information needed to understand exactly what the project entails, its impact on Murujuga Country, and what is being asked of MAC. From there, the board can seek the advice of the MAC circle of elders, before being in a position to decide if the proposal should be approved or consented to, whether further information is needed, or whether modification is required.

The model will ensure project development or expansion on Murujuga country meets the requirement of obtaining and maintaining free, prior and informed consent, aligning with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It will facilitate partnerships that value cultural authority and cultural heritage and include equitable sharing of economic benefits derived on country.

For industry, there will be certainty of process about activity on Murujuga country. Project proponents will understand what is required to form a genuine partnership with Traditional Owners represented by MAC. The Murujuga model can act as an Australian and global benchmark for agreement making with First Nations people.
There is an obvious appetite for more clean energy from the Pilbara. At the same time, Traditional Owners want to be true partners in projects moving forward. The Pilbara has a real opportunity to deliver even greater benefits than it currently does, for communities near and far.

• Michael Blakiston is a partner with Gilbert + Tobin Lawyers, specialising in energy and resources and Indigenous engagement

Published in Business News, Perth - Monday 27 November 2023