wheatstone project receives environmental approval

Chevron's Wheatstone Project recently reached a milestone with the announcement of environmental approval by the Western Australian state government. Located in the state's Pilbara region, the Wheatstone liquefied natural gas (LNG) hub—Australia's first—will provide a reliable new source of cleaner-burning fuel to the Asia-Pacific region.

The Wheatstone Project is located almost 870 miles (1,400 km) north of Perth, at Ashburton North, part of the semi-arid Pilbara coastal terrain.

The first phase of the Wheatstone Project will consist of two LNG processing trains with a combined capacity of 8.9 million tons per year (MTPA) and a domestic gas plant. The LNG plant will be located about 7.46 miles (12 km) south of the isolated town of Onslow, which has a population of about 550 people.

Western Australian environmental approval follows a rigorous three-year marine and terrestrial environmental assessment involving more than 625,000 man-hours. The environmental assessment process for Wheatstone scrutinized impacts to onshore and offshore habitats as diverse as dunes, mudflats, mangroves, coral beds, seagrass and islands near shore. Protected vertebrate species include marine turtles, crocodiles, dugong and humpback whales. About 55 species of fish are known to occur in the tidal lagoons in the Wheatstone Project area.

The Ashburton Delta, with six species of mangroves, is one of the Category-A mangrove areas afforded the highest level of protection by the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). Traditional shore-crossing methods, such as trenching, would have impacted habitats for these species. So the project opted to use micro-tunneling instead. This will result in a far better environmental outcome with almost zero impact compared to the original methods.

Wheatstone environment manager Andrew Mingst credited business unit management with enabling the successful state government environmental approvals process. "We've had unwavering support for comprehensive terrestrial and marine assessment," he said. "The project's understanding of habitats and species has in turn convinced the state regulators that Chevron can manage the environmental impacts and potential risks."

Protecting the Sawfish

During Chevron's comprehensive environmental assessment, the project team discovered a little-known sea creature. Despite its name, the green sawfish, an odd-looking critter with an impressive rostrum (beak), is not actually a fish at all, but rather a relative of the ray family. Two species of sawfish were observed in nearby lagoons and creeks during the course of the assessment.

Wheatstone marine environmental advisor Tony Rouphael recalled stumbling across a sawfish on a site visit in 2009. "An intern working on the project at the time was the first to see the dorsal fin in shallow water of a tidal creek," he said. "Usually you only see them as a trophy on the wall of a fish-and-chip shop."

In an effort to ensure this unique creature is properly protected, Chevron has commissioned an environmental study into behaviors of the sawfish. A tagging program is now providing a better understanding of both the day-to-day and long-term movements of the sawfish.

Environmental operations coordinator Dr. Glen Young said this survey is contributing to information on the sawfish's biology and ecology while aiding decision-making. "The information gathered during the survey is helping us understand how sawfish use the local creek systems and if sawfish move between creeks. The data has enabled the project to make more educated decisions on the best way to conserve these populations and their habitats," he said.

The sawfish project is one of dozens of studies included in the environmental assessment and emerging environmental management program for Wheatstone.

A final investment decision is expected in the coming months, once other agreements and approvals with various levels of government are finalized.

Updated: September 2011

Published: September 2011