Traditional owners win landmark court battle against Santos Barossa gas project

Image credit: Environmental Defenders Office

Tiwi Islands Traditional Owners have won a high-profile Federal Court case against Santos, overturning environmental approvals for the oil and gas giant’s multi-billion dollar Barossa gas project off the coast of the Northern Territory.

In a landmark decision, Justice Mordecai Bromberg ruled that the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) should not have approved plans to drill the gas field in the Timor Sea because Santos failed to properly consult Traditional Owners, the Munupi clan.

The decision means the NOPSEMA approvals are now invalid and Santos must vacate the Barossa field by October 6.

The ruling comes after months of legal proceedings which included an historic hearing of on-Country evidence from Traditional Owners in August, where Justice Bromberg travelled to Pitjamirra to take evidence from the Munupi community at a beachside hearing.

The Environmental Defenders Office, which represented plaintiff and Tiwi Elder Dennis Tipakalippa in the case, says the judge’s decision would have national and global implications.

“This is a huge victory for the Munupi Clan and a testament to their strength and dedication in the face of one of Australia’s largest mining companies,” said EDO Special Counsel Alina Leikin.

“Today’s decision … sets a new standard about the depth of consultation that companies are required to conduct with Traditional Owners before they gain approval for drilling.

“It confirms that the voices of First Nations communities must be heard when their Countries and cultures are under threat,” Leikin said.

“Santos tried to get away with not consulting us, but today we have had our voices heard. We cannot be sidelined or silenced,” said Tipakalippa, pictured above.

“We want Santos and all mining companies to remember – we are powerful, we will fight for our land and Sea Country, for our future generations no matter how hard and how long.”

Santos signed off on the multibillion dollar project in March 2021, and gained approvals from the offshore gas regulator to go ahead with the drilling of up to eight gas wells around the Tiwi Islands in March of 2022.

The company claimed consultation with Traditional Owners began in 2016, however planning documents submitted to the regulator suggested just two unanswered emails and one missed phone call were recorded during the consultation period.

Documents submitted by Santos indicate there was no face-to-face engagement between parties. The company had argued that climate impacts of the drilling would be minimised through carbon capture and storage technology, an as yet unproven technology.

In a statement to the ASX on Wednesday, Santos acknowledged the “disappointing outcome,” and said that drilling activities would be suspended “pending a favourable appeal outcome or the approval of a fresh Environment Plan.”

“Given the significance of this decision to us, our international joint venture partners and customers, and the industry more broadly, we consider that it should be reviewed by the Full Federal Court on appeal,” the statement said.

“Barossa is an important gas project for the nation, enhancing jobs, exports, and our relationships with investors and gas customers in Asia who have depended on Australia for their energy security for decades.”

Greens spokesperson for resources and Yamatji-Noongar woman Senator Dorinda Cox said the result of the legal challenge showed that mining companies and governments couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing without legislative pressure.

“The regulator has clearly failed the Munupi people,” said Cox. “NOPSEMA has not only ignored its responsibility to First Nations peoples, but all Australians,” said Cox.

“If Labor wants to meet their own emissions target, we cannot keep opening up new coal and gas, especially on the back of ruining First Nations cultural heritage.”

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