Pa­pua New Guinea’s boom gas project is burn­ing up

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE RESOURCE CURSE -

PNG LNG has yielded gas worth bil­lions for its West­ern op­er­a­tors. Lo­cal landown­ers have re­ceived no roy­al­ties at all. With anger ris­ing, dire con­se­quences were pre­dicted. Then dis­as­ter struck.

Bris­bane, Fe­bru­ary 17, 2010. A clutch of ExxonMo­bil ex­ec­u­tives gath­ers for a briefing from Pa­pua New Guinea spe­cial­ists: a ge­og­ra­pher, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist and an agron­o­mist. All aca­demics at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity, they’ve clocked up decades of field­work in the remote high­lands. They’ve as­sem­bled some slides that they hope will give the over­seers of ExxonMo­bil’s $US19 bil­lion liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas project, PNG LNG, in­sight into the lives of the peo­ple whose re­source they are pre­par­ing to pump out of the coun­try’s hin­ter­land and ship to mar­kets across Asia. The spe­cial­ists’ pitch is a hard-headed eval­u­a­tion of loom­ing risk. And it is point­edly plain-spo­ken, as­sum­ing lit­tle, if any, knowl­edge of Pa­pua New Guinea’s geog­ra­phy, his­tory or stag­ger­ingly com­plex cul­tures. The good news, they say, is that lo­cal peo­ple, and the pro­vin­cial and na­tional govern­ments, want the project. And the bad news? Ex­pec­ta­tions are per­ilously high. The de­sire for PNG LNG is founded on the be­lief that it will bring not only wealth to landown­ers in its foot­print but also des­per­ately needed ser­vices, roads, power, jobs and eco­nomic growth to the re­gion. Health care for most lo­cals is a long walk to an aid post that in all like­li­hood has no health worker or medicines. Child mor­tal­ity rates are al­most 40 times what they are in Aus­tralia, and markedly worse than else­where within the na­tion. Ed­u­ca­tion lev­els are woe­ful – 64 per cent of men and 77 per cent of women liv­ing around the gas source have no for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. The PNG LNG op­er­a­tion will be drop­ping into a land­scape in which the state barely casts a shadow. Vi­o­lence is rife, and po­lice and jus­tice elu­sive. Tribal con­flict, deeply rooted, has waxed and waned over the years in what is to­day called Hela Province. Now anx­i­eties and ri­val­ries are flar­ing around who will and won’t ben­e­fit from the gas mother lode, the ex­perts say, with the po­ten­tial to es­ca­late to block­ades, sab­o­tage and armed re­sis­tance. Col­leagues have been warn­ing about the stock­pile of heavy weapons in the high­lands for years. While nu­mer­ous promised works were built into the ben­e­fits-shar­ing agree­ments wran­gled with landowner rep­re­sen­ta­tives a year ear­lier, these PNG spe­cial­ists in Bris­bane urge ExxonMo­bil to in­vest deeply in ed­u­ca­tion, health, liveli­hoods, in­fra­struc­ture, se­cu­rity and mon­i­tor­ing. They point to the ju­nior project part­ner, PNG vet­eran Oil Search, which has long-es­tab­lished health pro­grams that are highly val­ued by lo­cal peo­ple – why not pig­gy­back on those re­la­tion­ships? Next slide. “Con­texts: other large re­source projects.” There’s the Porg­era gold­mine (“Po­lice at­tack mi­grants and lo­cals, burn houses, shoot peo­ple – com­pany ac­cused of breaches of hu­man rights”) and Ramu Nickel (“Chi­nese com­pany ig­nored lo­cal so­cial and em­ploy­ment con­di­tions – Ri­ots … Mine closed tem­po­rar­ily”). And then there’s Ok Tedi, which in the ’80s be­came short­hand for BHP’s in­ter­na­tional shame after a mon­u­men­tal en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter when a tail­ings dam col­lapsed. At the top of the list is Bougainville, a shat­ter­ing and mul­ti­lay­ered episode dis­tilled thus: “Sec­ond gen­er­a­tion un­happy with ben­e­fits … [Bougainville Cop­per Lim­ited] said it was the PNG Gov­ern­ment’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to fix … Power sup­ply sab­o­taged / PNG De­fence Force sol­diers at­tacked civil­ians … Years of civil war re­sult [in] per­ma­nent clo­sure of mine and high death rate.” The PNG LNG op­er­a­tion, how­ever, is touted as a game changer, the big­gest re­sources project in the Asi­aPa­cific, with ca­pac­ity to dou­ble GDP. The Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment has backed it with a $US350 mil­lion in­vest­ment. Com­pared to the mines in the slideshow, its en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print is light. But PNG LNG will sit in one of the most cul­tur­ally fas­ci­nat­ing and in­cen­di­ary landscapes imag­in­able. The Huli peo­ple of Hela Province, keep­ers of the gas flame, have for­ever seen them­selves at the cen­tre of the uni­verse. For bet­ter or worse, the im­pli­ca­tions of this project – re­gion­ally, eco­nom­i­cally, geopo­lit­i­cally – are seis­mic. The last slide is ti­tled “The be­gin­ning, not the end”. A small Huli boy is jux­ta­posed with a bare­foot youth crouched by a road­side and nurs­ing a high-pow­ered au­to­matic ri­fle. “I will be 18 years old in 2022,” says the cap­tion. “And if I have not been ed­u­cated and I am still a sub­sis­tence farmer liv­ing in rel­a­tive poverty, I am go­ing to be re­ally an­gry! I may be armed and dan­ger­ous!” Tari, cap­i­tal of Hela Province, Fe­bru­ary 1, 2018. By the time the Air Ni­ug­ini Dash 8 drops through the high­lands pall we’re al­most jump­ing dis­tance above the for­est canopy. It’s bro­ken by the con­tor­tions of rivers and the odd road, and clear­ings oc­cu­pied by round huts and crops of sweet potato and greens. Be­yond the blur of the pro­pel­ler, the clouds close like shut­ters on the dis­tant ranges. There was no world be­yond this fortressed hori­zon for the Huli un­til first con­tact in the 1930s. The first per­ma­nent colo­nial pa­trol post didn’t ar­rive in Tari un­til 1951. Then came the mis­sion­ar­ies. The prospec­tors. The oil­men. And then, a decade ago, after a few false starts, the ad­vance guard of PNG LNG. The an­ces­tors had seen them com­ing, these “red­legged” men. The Huli knew all about the sub­ter­ranean power buried within their coun­try, the fire (gas) and wa­ter (oil). They nav­i­gated around it with rit­ual. Their lore was se­lec­tively en­listed for the PNG LNG hard sell. It was destiny that the un­der­ground fire the Huli call Lai Tebo would “light up the world”, bring­ing in wealth that

“When the white peo­ple come to take the power from the earth, there will be ter­ri­ble fight­ing and Huli cul­ture will fade away.”

Armed clan near Komo, Hela Province, Pa­pua New Guinea. Photo by Michael Main

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