The Pilbara is the economic heart of the North West with its mammoth iron ore and oil and gas industries. The region covers the towns of Port Hedland, Karratha, Roebourne, Newman, Tom Price, Marble Bar, Newman and Onslow. It is home to such landmarks as the Karijini and Millstream National Parks, the Mackerel Islands and the Dampier Archipelago.
The population is about 45,000, with the highest concentration of people in Karratha and Port Hedland. The Pilbara region has been home to Aboriginal people for an estimated 30,000 years. Some of the world’s most outstanding ancient rock carvings petroglyphs are to be found on the Burrup Peninsula.
European ships visited the Pilbara in the 1600s, but European settlement of the region did not begin until the 1860s. Settlers such as the Withnell family started to establish stations in the excellent pastoral lands along the coast to the De Grey River and the hinterland. The Pilbara is a very ancient part of Australia and is a geological wonderland with many minerals including gold, which led to the founding of Marble Bar in the 1890s. From the 1950s discoveries of massive deposits of iron ore as well as oil and natural gas off the North West shelf were made, with the development of these resources expanding the region’s economy and population enormously through the 1970s and 1980s.
The Pilbara's economy is dominated by the mining and petroleum industries and is considered to be the State's premier mining region. The production value of the regional mining and petroleum industries was $20.6 billion in 2004/05, with oil and condensate valued at $7.2 billion, iron ore valued at $8.0 billion and gas (LNG, LPG, and Natural Gas) valued at $4.8 billion. Other minerals extracted in the region include salt, silver, gold, manganese and base metals.
The mineral industry dominates the Pilbara economy and plays a vital role in the Australian economy as a whole, producing goods and services worth more than $15 billion annually. Iron ore is one of Australia's major export industries. More than 95 per cent of Australia’s iron ore comes from the Pilbara. Iron ore has played a vital role in the development of the Pilbara since the industry’s beginnings in the 1960s and since that time has provided thousands of jobs and huge opportunities for local residents and businesses. There are about 22 iron ore mining and processing operations in the Pilbara.
The Pilbara’s oil and gas industry is the region’s largest export industry earning almost $10 billion per annum. About 77 per cent of WA’s gas reserves are located in the Carnarvon Basin, beneath the seabed on the North West Continental Shelf. The Carnarvon basin accounts for 80 per cent of all oil and gas wells drilled in WA and 50 per cent of all offshore wells drilled in Australia. WA supplies over 90 per cent of Australian salt exports to Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It is primarily used in the chemical industries with about 10-15 per cent of salt used in food and related uses.
The Pilbara’s climate makes it ideal for salt production and the region has the biggest solar salt fields in Australia and the second largest in the world. Salt exports from the region started in the 1960s with about six million tonnes exported annually. More than 400 people are employed in this industry.
The pastoral industry formed the original backbone of the Pilbara economy, and before the resource boom of the 1960s was the region’s major industry. The industry’s economic value varies from year-to-year, as do cattle numbers. Many cattle are exported live from Port Hedland to markets including Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Total agricultural production was valued at $46 million in 2003/04. This comprised predominantly of livestock disposals (97 per cent of agricultural production) valued at $45.2 million.