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Traditional Owners now major players for miners going green

David Prestipino -

Traditional Owners are primed to play a major role as Australia's biggest miners invest billions in decarbonising projects across their lands.

The renewable energy transition is now high on the agenda for the likes of BHP, Fortescue and Rio Tinto, who are developing plans to restructure their operations to run green.

The massive renewable energy targets of the world's biggest miners have also opened opportunities for Traditional Owners to play a key role in the expansion, with Western Australia's vast Pilbara region front and centre in mining's push to decarbonise.

That was evident in Roebourne on 20 October, as Rio Tinto iron ore boss Simon Trott announced a new MOU with Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation to collaborate on renewable energy projects on Yindjibarndi country in the Pilbara, where Rio mainly operates.

The YEC was established in June after an agreement between Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation and South-East Asian renewable energy giant ACEN Corporation to progress major renewable energy projects across 13,000km2 of Yindjibarndi native title areas.

The joint venture gives traditional owners between 25 and 50 per cent ownership in any project developed.

YAC chief executive Michael Woodley said on Friday the mining industry's decarbonisation targets were perfect timing for Traditional Owner groups to be major players in Australia's renewable energy rollout.

"What we have here is an opportunity," he said.

"We are in the right place at the right time.

"Once there is commitment from industry to decarbonise, we can contribute through our projects."

Having battled for decades for their right to benefit financially from huge-scale projects across their cultural lands, Traditional Owners could now benefit from the mining industry's massive expansion of renewable power in their backyard.

"We obviously have our views in terms of mining," Mr Woodley said.

"But we think entering into this space is not only good for Yindjibarndi, it's good for our community, it's good for our country, and it's good for the world.

"It's going to be part of something that is going to contribute to the world economy, but in a different shift."

Mr Woodley believes miners will increasingly partner with Traditional Owner groups and use their knowledge of cultural sites to fast-track approvals for their green energy projects.

"One of the good things about this type of project is you can go about selecting where would be an appropriate place that doesn't interfere or impact with significant cultural areas on sites, river systems, waterways and important places," he said.

"We work closely with our Elders and then we obviously land on a site that is obviously going to be best for the Yindjibarndi people when we're considering those things."

Yindjibarndi Energy CEO Craig Ricato said it had sufficient funding via ACEN to develop feasibility and approval works.

He said 900MW of potential wind resource had been identified on Yindjibarndi country and the business - which was currently assessing a potential 300MW wind farm project - was open to supplying other customers in the Pilbara and the WA government's North West Interconnected System, which supplies electricity to major towns and resources projects in the region.

Rio Tinto plans to invest up to $7.5 billion by 2030 on its decarbonisation efforts, while BHP will spend about half of that during the next six years on its transition to clean energy, with both companies having a net zero target by 2050. Fortescue believes it can hit net zero at a cost of $9.7 billion by 2030.

Mr Trott said Rio was committed to exploring opportunities to partner with traditional owners in the renewable energy space.

"We continue to be open to discussions with Yindjibarndi on this arrangement and on future arrangements, as we are with other parties within the Pilbara that are looking to progress renewables," he said alongside Mr Woodley on 20 October.

"We've obviously got fairly ambitious targets for our own business ... and this [MOU] is a step towards that."

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