In a landmark decision, the Federal Court of Australia on September 21 invalidated Santos’ approval to drill for gas in the sea north of the Tiwi Islands. The court found that Santos failed to consult Tiwi Traditional Owners as required and Santos must now vacate the Barossa field by October 6.
The decision will have significant implications for Santos’ Barossa gas project and it puts other gas companies on notice not to ignore First Nations peoples.
Senior Tiwi Lawman Dennis Tipakalippa launched the lawsuit in June, arguing that the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, the federal offshore gas regulator, should not have approved Santos’ plans to drill the Barossa gas field because Santos failed to properly consult the Munupi Clan.
Traditional Owners told the court that Santos’ Barossa offshore gas project posed a risk to food sources and continuous spiritual connection to Sea Country that has endured for millennia.
The Federal Court made a historic journey last month to the Pitjamirra beach homeland on Melville Island where it took on-Country evidence from Traditional Owners, including in the form of song and dance.
Santos agreed to halt drilling before it hit the gas reservoir and while the court considered its decision.
Plaintiff and Tiwi Elder Tipakalippa said: “I am the happiest man alive. We are so happy and so relieved. We have won.
“The most important thing for us is to protect our Sea Country. 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.
“We will fight from the beginning to the end. Santos tried to get away with not consulting us, but today we have had our voices heard. We cannot be sidelined or silenced.”
Enivronmental Defenders Office Special Counsel Alina Leikin said: “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.
“It will have national and global implications for consultation with First Nations peoples on mining projects.
“Our client argued that he and his clan were not properly consulted about drilling that could irreparably damage their Sea Country. Witnesses gave compelling on-Country evidence about the physical and spiritual impact the drilling could have on them, their culture and the sacred animals that call this Sea Country home.
“Today’s decision puts oil and gas companies on notice. It sets a new standard about the depth of consultation that companies are required to conduct with Traditional Owners before they gain approval for drilling in Sea Country. It confirms that the voices of First Nations communities must be heard when their Countries and cultures are under threat.
“It was the greatest privilege to represent Mr Tipakalippa in this historic case and we could not be more pleased for him and the Munupi Clan on their victory today.”
Jason Fowler, Energy Campaigner at the Environment Centre NT said the decision “could have enormous ramifications not only for the Barossa project, which is now in disarray, but for all offshore oil and gas projects”.
“Gas companies: take notice,” he said. “What Santos has tried to pass off as consultation has been found to be insufficient and now the wheels are off their project. Oil and gas multinationals like Santos are not above the rules.
“The Barossa gas field is the dirtiest in Australia and drilling it poses massive risks to pristine Sea Country, as well as the Federal Oceanic Shoals Marine Park.”