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Decision time for Australia gas deal

AUSTRALIA, Aug 21 – Australia will decide "in the next week" whether to grant environmental approval to a project that will supply natural gas to China under Canberra\’s biggest ever trade deal, a minister said Friday.

Beijing\’s PetroChina and ExxonMobil earlier this week sealed a record-breaking deal to supply China with 41 billion US dollars of natural gas from the project over the next two decades.

But the scheme needs approval first and Environment Minister Peter Garrett would soon decide on whether to green light the still-undeveloped Gorgon liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant off Western Australia.

"I expect to make a decision in the next week, but again I will take the time to go through all of the material in front of me very carefully," he told reporters.

Garrett, who has until September 8 to give his decision on the environmental impact of the scheme, said he was considering advice from officials on endangered species potentially affected by the building of undersea pipelines.

PetroChina\’s investment represents around one-sixth of the total supply contracts signed for Gorgon, and is expected to create up to 6,000 jobs and pump billions of dollars into Australia\’s economy.

But Garrett said he did not feel pressured politically to sign off on the deal, which senior ministers touted as proof the China-Australia relationship had weathered a series of recent tensions. "I am under no pressure whatsoever in relation to this project other than to do my job as a regulator properly," Garrett said.

Rows between Beijing and Canberra over the detention of Rio Tinto mining executive Stern Hu in Shanghai and a visit to Australia by Uighur dissident Rebiya Kadeer have brought their relationship to its lowest point in years.

But Australia\’s foreign affairs department said Friday that stalled free trade negotiations between the key trading partners, who last year enjoyed a 58 billion US dollar relationship, were due to resume next month.

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"The next meeting of officials is expected next month," a spokeswoman told AFP.

Australia and China agreed in April 2005 to launch negotiations, but talks have been stalled since December over disagreements on agriculture, services and investment.

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