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Bottom line will decide future of gas hub

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In what is fast becoming one of Australia's most bitterly fought environmental campaigns, cash - rather than conservation - is likely to determine the fate of Woodside Petroleum's multibillion-dollar Kimberley gas hub.

As focus remains on the heated politics and mounting protests surrounding the proposed James Price Point site, 60 kilometres north of Broome, business analysts have quietly been crunching the numbers.

The final cost of the development cannot be determined. 

Woodside's ambition to build what could become the world's biggest LNG processing plant is not only questionable on economic grounds, they say, but damaging its brand.

Already facing a groundswell of local opposition based on indigenous, conservation and rising cost-of-living fears, anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd is set to up the ante in the anti-gas campaign by taking it global.

"This campaign is moving past a pivotal point into a national and international campaign and it's going to get stronger and accelerate," former Greens leader Bob Brown said last week.

Mr Brown has just spent a week aboard the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin, highlighting one of the world's largest humpback whale nurseries off James Price Point.

"Industrialisation of the Kimberley is roaring down the line and it is a massive mistake," he said.

Last month, investment bank Citi criticised Woodside's decision to pursue the LNG hub instead of piping gas from the Browse Basin, in Kimberley waters, to existing processing facilities in the Pilbara, about 850 kilometres south.

Citi managing director of energy research Mark Greenwood said the Kimberley option would have an 11 per cent internal rate of return while the Pilbara option would generate a 15 per cent rate of return.

This was based on non-Woodside estimates that the cost of the project would blow out from $36 billion to $45 billion.

Meanwhile, he said, a final investment decision - which had already been delayed - could take more than a year.

Woodside said last week it had received all tender bids for the Browse hub and was on track to make its final decision in the first half of 2013. But it was coy on the cost.

"Until the bids have been evaluated for all of those tender packages, a final cost of the development cannot be determined," a spokesman said.

AAP

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