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Australian Government Approves Massive Offshore Natural Gas Deal

Australia has approved a huge natural gas project to be built on a nature reserve off its west coast. The $42 billion development will supply gas to China and India but environmentalists condemn it as irresponsible.

The development on Barrow Island off the Western Australia coast will be the country's biggest resources project.

The Gorgon plant will supply natural gas to Asia and will be run by U.S. oil company Chevron along with partners Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil.

The companies are expected to make a final decision on their participation in the coming months.

The developers plan to produce 15 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas each year. The project is expected to create 6,000 jobs in what will be a massive expansion of Australia's total gas production.

In Canberra, the federal government approved the plan subject to a range of conditions on protecting local wildlife, especially the endangered flat back turtle. The developers have said they will adhere to the conditions.

Wildlife conservationists say the Barrow Island site is home to endangered animals and that the plant should be built instead on the mainland.

Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett dismisses that argument. He says that ecological concerns have been thoroughly investigated.

"I'm not required to consider alternative sites in relation to the proposal in front of me, what I am required to do is make a very clear assessment as to whether or not there will be impacts on matters of national environment significance, confined in this instance to listed and threatened species and in particular to the flat back turtle," Garrett said. "I've considered it very carefully; I don't believe that there'll be unacceptable impacts."

Environmentalists hold grave fears for a number of rare and endemic species, including the Barrow Island mouse and the flat back turtle.

The Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown, says the government has again put economic interests ahead of wildlife.

"The company itself had options on the mainland, but of course, the mighty dollar here, which the Rudd government puts in front of the environment every time, has had sway," Brown said.

Multibillion dollar sales of liquefied natural gas to China could ease Australia's rather fraught relationship with Beijing.

Canberra's dealings with its biggest export customer have been battered by the recent arrest in China of an Australian Rio Tinto mining executive for commercial espionage. An Australian visa granted to an exiled leader of China's restive Uighur minority also soured diplomatic exchanges between the two governments.