“Neither of the islands have rare biodiversity by the standards of the Kimberley,” Inpex group manager external affairs Sean Kildare said.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the project and the Marets,” he said.
“Inpex has spent between $15 and $20 million on environmental studies since May last year and has consulted many environmental experts on the Kimberley.
“The Marets' flora and fauna are widely replicated throughout the Kimberley.
“This project’s proposal does not present a significant risk to the islands’ environment, and we will need to use both [islands] for the project.”
Lacking permanent sources of fresh water, the Marets have no marsupials or other mammals.
Their fauna consists of small lizards, snakes and birds. Nor is there any evidence of any long-term human settlement on the islands.
“They're rarely visited,” Kildare said. “Inpex has had a permanent presence on the islands for the last 12 months, and only two or three tourist vessels have sailed past them in that time.”
But he acknowledged this hasn't stopped some tourist operators and environmentalists arguing the development would be bad for the region's travel industry and ecosystems.
“Whenever a tourist operator speaks up against the project, it's the same two or three voices,” he said.
Kildare said travel operators who opposed the project might fear it would be the thin end of a development wedge into the region, but some of the Kimberley's tourism players didn't seem worried by the project.
“The Marets are well north of the region's iconic sites and well off the beaten path,” he said.
In fact, some tourist operators actually see opportunities in having Ichthys gas processed on the Marets, Kildare said.
“We've had Kimberley companies come into our Perth offices and ask whether the workforce we would have based on the Marets would be interested in tours or fishing trips once their swing is over,” he said.
“There will be hundreds of workers there during the construction phase and I'm sure some of them would love the chance to see that part of the country.”
Savvy tourist operators aren't the only people seeing opportunities in Ichthys. After drawn-out negotiations, the local traditional landowners are now enthusiastically backing the project.
“Traditional owners are now out on site regularly and they are prepared to negotiate an agreement for the project to proceed,” Kildare said.
Indeed, the 10 trillion cubic feet gas project offers big opportunities to WA as a whole, Kildare said.
“It's a long-life project, expected to be producing for at least 40 years, and will provide plenty of jobs and economic spin-offs, as well as substantial taxes and government revenues,” he said.
Kildare said the Marets could also host other LNG proponents.
Piping gas south to a Woodside-operated Pluto LNG hub on the Burrup Peninsula is not an option for Inpex.
But the Ichthys gas plant could be the start of an LNG hub on the twin islands, drawing in gas from other operators (and future discoveries) in the region and bringing more revenue to WA, he said.
Kildare reiterated that Inpex believed it had selected the best site for the Ichthys field development, and said the project's social and economic benefits would outweigh any environmental impact.
In fact, because LNG was one of the cleanest economically sustainable fuels, the project could be argued to be inherently environmentally friendly.
But this didn't mean Inpex saw winning environmental approvals as a foregone conclusion.
“Western Australia's environmental approvals process is transparent and sets very high hurdles,” he said.
Inpex is aiming for a relatively narrow window – first LNG by late 2012 and a final investment decision by the end of 2008.
The project might also be able to offer the state gas for local use under the State Government's domestic gas reservations policy, Kildare said.
“Both Ichthys and the Marets are well off the beaten track,” Kildare said, but that also means piping Ichthys gas to any existing domestic market would be prohibitively expensive.”
Depsite these constraints, Inpex was willing to do what it could to meet government expectations, Kildare said.
“We are working with government with a very positive view that a solution can be reached that enables Inpex to contribute to the solution to WA's perceived domestic gas shortage,” he said.
“It will require an innovative solution, but we are optimistic.”