Tiwi Islanders challenge regulator over Santos gas project

June 8, 2022
Photo: Tiwi Traditional Owner Dennis Tipakalippa and Tiwi Islanders/Environmental Defenders Office

Senior Lawman and Tiwi Traditional Owner Dennis Tipakalippa is challenging the federal offshore oil and gas regulator’s decision to approve Santos’ plan to drill the Barossa gas field, 300 kilometres north of Darwin.

Apart from concerns the project would damage food sources, culture and way of life, his people were never consulted.

The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) approved Santos' proposal to drill up to eight gas production wells off the Northern Beaches of the Tiwi Islands in March.

Tipakalippa is asking the Federal Court to set aside Santos’ drilling approval, saying he and his community were never consulted.

“Santos said they did consultation for this drilling project, but no one spoke to me as a Traditional Owner and Senior Lawman for the Munupi clan.

“My clan, the Munupi, own these Northern Beaches. It’s our land that’s closest to the drilling site. We are the ones who are going to be affected. They never came to me in person or face to face. They couldn’t face my people.”

The legal action was filed as Santos prepares to start drilling.

“We spend a lot of time out in the water — hunting, fishing,” Tipakalippa said. “We only ever take what we can eat in a day, no more. We respect our homelands, our sea country and it looks after us. Santos should have respected us and consulted in the proper way. They think they can just go ahead with drilling our sea country without even talking to us. It feels like a big backstab. Enough is enough.”

Tipakalippa and his community are particularly concerned by the disastrous impact of an oil spill in their sea country. He is also worried that increased shipping may interfere with the breeding patterns and nesting grounds of turtles, dugongs, whales and other marine species essential to Tiwi ceremonies, songlines and cultural practices.

“The drilling may be out in the ocean, but that’s our sea country and we know how the waters move. We know anything that goes in the water out there will come in here to our shores. Especially in the wet season when there are big winds and cyclones. I’m also worried about all the noise from the choppers overhead and all those big ships going by. The turtles could be killed by those ship propellers. Their shells all chopped up. Or they will be scared away and not nest here anymore,” Tipakalippa said.

Marine scientist and energy campaigner for the Environment Centre NT Jason Fowler said Tiwi Islanders’ concerns are critical.

“Drilling production wells in the Barossa field will have a huge impact on marine life in the Timor Sea because it means two years of non-stop heavy industrial shipping activity and huge volumes of chemicals, cement and waste dumped into the sea during the drilling process.

“Any mistake at the Barossa field, such as a well blowout or ship collision, could be devastating to the Tiwi Islands, particularly during the summer monsoon when strong northwest trade winds will push any oil spill towards the Tiwi coast.

“Tropical cyclones regularly cross the Timor Sea which greatly increases the chances for these disasters to occur.

“Santos has rejected key safety measures, such as locating oil spill clean-up equipment at Port Melville on the nearby Tiwi Islands, ceasing drilling during cyclone season and ruling out the mandatory use of double hulled ships.

“This all adds up to increased risk to Tiwi Islanders who will have limited ability to react if an oil spill occurs.”


Tiwi Islanders hold a banner against Santos' Barossa gas project. Photo: Environment Centre Northern Territory

Santos was required by law to consult with people who might be impacted by the drilling plans, including Tiwi people. Lawyers from the Environmental Defenders Office will argue that because Santos failed to consult Tipakalippa and his community, NOPSEMA’s decision to approve the environmental plan is invalid.

Alina Leikin, Special Counsel for the Environmental Defenders Office, said: “Santos had a legal obligation to consult with people who might be impacted by the drilling. Our client is arguing that consultation did not occur, and so the approval is invalid.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for the Tiwi community. Their food source, their traditional practices, their culture and the country they’ve protected for millennia will be at risk if this drilling goes ahead. These waters and the life within them mean everything to Dennis and his community, but they didn’t have a chance to voice their concerns before the drilling was approved. They were sidelined from the consultation process."

The outcomes of this case will be significant, given that it is Australia’s first ever legal action challenging the lack of consultation with First Nations people in relation to an offshore project.

“This case could establish what constitutes adequate consultation with First Nations people in relation to offshore gas developments,” Leikin said. “It could have significant implications for how mining companies view their consultation obligations with First Nations people.”

This case is not the first time that Tiwi Traditional Owners have voiced their concerns over Santos’ lack of consultation. Traditional Owners from the neighbouring Jikilaruwu clan took the South Korean government to court in February in an attempt to stop it financing the project, on which they had not been consulted.

A South Korean court found in May that Tiwi people still had legal rights to challenge the project in Australia and therefore the environmental and cultural impacts should be assessed by Australia’s legal system.

“It’s all about our future generations. That’s what I worry for,” Tipakalippa said. “What are they going to have, who are they going to be? Our lives are not just lived on the land, but in the sea — this home that we have loved for thousands of generations.

[Naish Gawen is with the Environment Centre Northern Territory.]

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