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SYDNEY: Australian environmental groups on Tuesday vowed to scupper plans for a vast new gas project off the country's pristine northwest coast, saying it would critically undercut international climate efforts.

Woodside Petroleum -- fast becoming a major energy market player -- on Monday finalised plans to sink US$12 billion into developing the remote Scarborough gas field, beginning exports by 2026.

Experts and activist groups say the project is equivalent to building 15 new mid-sized coal-fired power plants, and makes a mockery of recent global commitments to halt fossil fuel investments.

"It is very big, it will result in about 1.6 billion tonnes of emissions over its lifetime, about 56 million tonnes a year," Mark Ogge, principal advisor at the Australia Institute think tank, told AFP. "It's just an incredibly irresponsible thing to be going ahead with as the world is doing its best to tackle climate change."

Woodside this week also finalised a Aus$40 billion (US$29 billion) deal to buy BHP's fossil fuel assets, creating what the latter called "a global top 10 independent energy company".

BHP -- one of the world's largest mining companies -- is offloading its fossil fuel assets in a bid to boost its green credentials.

Critics argue the move is "greenwashing" and will do nothing to help the environment as Woodside plans to keep BHP's fossil fuel projects alive and now has more leverage to start new drilling projects.

But the firm has the support of Australia's conservative government, which has shunned calls to decarbonise, insisting Australia will sell fossil fuels for as long as anyone is buying.

The country is already one of the world's largest exporters of coal and gas, despite feeling the effects of climate change through worsening bushfires, droughts and flooding.

Resources minister Keith Pitt on Tuesday hailed the new project -- which would operate into the 2050s -- calling it "a great achievement" that showed "the demand for our gas and resources continues to grow".

"This is a major vote of confidence in the sector and demonstrates that, despite the claims and protestations of activists, that there continues to be a bright future for our gas and oil industries," he said.

Woodside CEO Meg O'Neill indicated Scarborough would bring profits that would help "the funding of future developments and new energy products".

Supporters argue that gas is less polluting than other fossil fuels and is a necessary bridge to a cleaner energy future.

But critics such as Greenpeace Australia slammed the Scarborough project as "toxic" and "Australia's most climate polluting development ever proposed".

"Woodside, like a bunch of vandals in the night, trying to rush this monstrous project through," the pressure group said.

The Conservation Council of Western Australia has already embarked on legal action to block the Scarborough project.

"We believe the approvals that Woodside is relying on for the Scarborough project were given unlawfully," executive director Maggie Wood said in a statement to AFP.

"We look forward to the opportunity to have this case heard before the WA Supreme Court" in December, she added.


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