CRUCIAL environmental recommendations for the $35 billion gas hub proposal at James Price Point will be made by one man after conflicts of interest struck out four West Australian Environmental Protection Authority board members from the Browse LNG Project assessment.
The revelation comes only days before the environmental watchdog is expected to hand down its verdict on the proposal, which has attracted heated opposition from environmental lobbies and some Aboriginal groups in the Kimberley.
The EPA yesterday confirmed an "unprecedented" situation for the proposal's strategic environmental assessment, in which chairman Paul Vogel is the only member of the board without a serious conflict of interest. EPA deputy chairman Chris Whitaker and board member Denis Glennon were recently excluded from the process of making a decision because both hold shares in Woodside Petroleum, the project's operator, through self-managed superannuation funds.
Dr Vogel said Dr Whitaker and Mr Glennon's shareholdings in Woodside "could have varied considerably over the four-year assessment time frame", and that "at the time of the proposal being referred to the EPA, it was not clear that Woodside would be a foundation proponent".
"The EPA became aware of these conflicts of interest through the members' own declarations at relevant board meetings," he said.
Fellow board member Rod Lukatelich was struck off because he was a current employee of BP, one of the project's joint-venture partners. Dr Lukatelich works as an environment and dangerous goods manager at BP's Kwinana refinery, according to the EPA's website. Dr Vogel said Dr Whitaker, Dr Lukatelich and Mr Glennon were barred from decisions on any recommendation to the minister about whether the proposal could be recommended for approval after he determined in February that there was a conflict of interest.
Another board member, Elizabeth Carr, has never been included in the Browse assessment because before she joined the board, she worked for the project's proponent, the WA Department of State Development.
"The recommendation to the minister about whether or not this project receives crucial EPA approval falls to the chairman alone in the instance because we didn't have a quorum," Dr Vogel said.
"In late February I sought legal advice and as a result of that advice I then determined that the remaining three board members had a conflict of interest and on that interest they could not participate in deliberation or decision making."
Dr Vogel said he had acted on his own only for the past four months out of a four-year decision-making process. "The systems that we have in place all allowed for this to happen, as unusual and as unprecedented as it is," he said. "We have a standing delegation for these situations where members find themselves conflicted and we don't have a quorum." Dr Vogel said it had taken months for the conflicts to become public because the EPA had originally intended to release the news with its recommendations, which were meant to have been handed down in February.
"It was always my intention to make this public it wasn't a matter of if, it was a matter of when," he said. "A lot of people across a lot of government departments knew about this it was no secret."
The Wilderness Society of WA wants an immediate suspension of the strategic assessment for the hub in light of the one-man EPA panel.
"The public has been hoodwinked into thinking that a proper and rigorous environmental decision-making process has been applied to the proposal, but in fact it has been left to just one person, the EPA chair, to make the decision on whether or not to recommend approval of the massive and controversial project," society state secretary Peter Robertson said.
The EPA's recommendations are expected to be released on Friday, but the project would still need the support of state and federal environment ministers.