Karratha – A Short Economic History

City of Karratha – A Quick overview

The City of Karratha – previously the Shire of Roebourne – is 1550 km by road north of Perth and consists of 5 towns – Karratha, Dampier, Roebourne, Wickham and Point Samson – and one ghost town. It has an area of about 15,000 square kilometres. We have incredible industrial infrastructure – in today’s money there would be close to $1 trillion worth of investment across the Pilbara – and in Karratha alone we have three major ports – Dampier, Cape Lambert and Cape Preston – and three others – Anketell, Cape Preston East and Balla Balla on the drawing board. Our airport is the second busiest in WA and the 8th busiest regional airport in the country – there is a lot going on here.


Like all of Australia, Karratha has a history of Aboriginal occupation dating back many tens of thousands of years. However, in the Karratha region there are many artefacts that speak to this long history, in particular the spectacular Burrup Peninsular, or Murujuga, which has hundreds of thousands of rock engravings and is likely to be Australia’s next World Heritage site. White history in our region began with the first settlers, who arrived in 1863. The original towns of Cossack and Roebourne, were established at this time and supported the two first industries in our area – the pastoralism and pearling industries. Pastoralism and pearling kept the area buoyant in the latter half of the 19th century. By the early 1870s up to 80 luggers were operating in the area. In 1878, gold was discovered at Nullagine which diversified the economy and increased the prosperity of the towns. Whim Creek, within the City boundaries, was the location of a major copper discovery in 1872 – the mine is still operating, though at a low level. In the 20th century, a jetty was constructed at Point Samson, which served as the area’s port from 1910. From 1938 to 1966 blue asbestos was exported from Point Samson. In the early 1960s, exploration for iron ore commenced and in 1966 the first vessel left the newly constructed Port of Dampier with its cargo of iron ore bound for Japan. Ports were subsequently built at East Intercourse Island and Cape Lambert and a major industry began to transform the Pilbara. The town of Karratha was established in 1968 in response to the continued development of the Hamersley Iron operation and the commencement of the nearby Dampier Salt project. The final town to be established was Wickham, built in 1970 by Cliffs Robe River Iron Associates to house its port employees. The Oil and Gas industry began in the early 1980s when the North West Shelf Project – then the largest project in the world – commenced construction in Karratha. This was followed by other hydrocarbon projects. In the mid-2000s the China boom began in earnest and a plethora of new iron ore mines and gas projects began.

Industry – Iron Ore

Iron Ore exports remain the most significant industry in our City in terms of tonnage and revenue. This coming year, some 330 million tonnes of iron ore will be exported from our ports. Rio Tinto Iron Ore is the main player in our City. It has a world class integrated network of 15 mines, a rail network of 1,700 km and four independent port terminals, with a current production capacity of 360 million tonnes per annum. The Citic Pacific Sino Iron Project mines magnetite iron ore which requires beneficiation before it can be exported for use in the steel making process. This is the largest magnetite operation in Australia. It contains infrastructure of epic proportions including a 450 megawatt combined cycle, gas fired power station, a 51 gigalitre per annum desalination plant and a port at Cape Preston.

Industry – Oil and Gas

The City of Karratha is the oil and gas hub of the nation. It hosts the Woodside-operated North West Shelf (NWS) Project which at $29.5b (in 1983 dollars) is the largest current oil and gas resource investment in Australia and accounts for greater than 30% of Australia’s oil and gas production. The NWS partners are: BHP Billiton, BP, Chevron, Mitsui, Shell and Woodside. 55% of WA’s domestic gas is supplied by the NWS with delivery to the rest of WA via the Dampier to Bunbury Gas Pipeline. Woodside’s Pluto LNG Project is also located at Karratha. It processes natural gas extracted from the Pluto and Xena gas fields and the Pluto A platform. Quadrant (previously Apache) Energy is the second largest producer of domestic gas in WA and has developed the Devil Creek Domestic Gas Plant south of Karratha.

Other Karratha Industries

Dampier Salt is the world’s largest exporter of solar salt, producing 8 to 10 MTPA. It has a total revenue of about $380M, and has three salt farms – Dampier, Port Hedland and Lake MacLeod. Yara Pilbara Fertilisers Pty Ltd is one of the world’s largest ammonia production facilities, with a production capability of approximately 850,000 metric tons annually. Yara Pilbara Nitrates has constructed a technical ammonium nitrate plant. Plankton Farms, on the outskirts of Karratha, plans to grow 30 tonnes of an Australian species of micro-algae.

Current Statistics

• The economic contribution of City of Karratha is significant with a GRP of $27b • Out of 139 municipalities in WA, Karratha’s output is second to the entire City of Perth ($30.5b) and ranks fifth in Australia after Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Gold Coast. • The city’s output represents 9.9% of WA economy produced by 1.1% of the population • The official population of the City of Karratha is 26,649 (ERP 2015) • The average growth rate over the last 10 years is 4.7% – one of the highest growth rates in WA.