Federal Court rejects Indigenous heritage claim against Santos gas pipeline

Gas producer Santos is free to install a vital gas pipeline from its $5.5 billion Barossa gas pipeline after the Federal Court rejected claims it could damage Indigenous cultural heritage.

On Monday, Justice Natalie Charlesworth lifted an injunction – which she had imposed in early November and revised two weeks later – on laying the pipeline to allow work in the northernmost part of the route away from the Tiwi Islands.

Jikilaruwu traditional owner Simon Munkara.
Jikilaruwu traditional owner Simon Munkara. Credit: Tymunna Clements

Simon Munkara, a Tiwi Islands traditional owner, went to the Federal Court in October to stop the installation of the gas pipeline from Barossa until Santos did more to protect underwater cultural heritage and was later joined by members of two other Tiwi clans.

In her judgment, Charlesworth said differing accounts from witnesses from the Jikilaruwu, Munupi and Malawu people led her to conclude the beliefs and customs that formed the intangible cultural heritage the applicants claimed could be damaged by the pipeline were not broadly accepted within their communities.

Charlesworth said there was a “lack of integrity” in some aspects of an exercise that married science and traditional belief in evidence to show there was an ancient lake near the pipeline route, undermining her confidence in the existence of such a lake.

Concerns over tangible cultural heritage along the pipeline route from the time the area was not underwater were rejected by Charlesworth, who found there was a negligible chance of archaeological remains.

The Barossa project has been dogged by legal challenges based on concerns over protecting Indigenous culture.

In September 2022, the Federal Court found the Adelaide-based company had not adequately consulted traditional owners – led by Tiwi Islander Dennis Tipakalippa – before submitting its plans to the offshore environment regulator NOPSEMA and ordered it to stop drilling for gas at Barossa.

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The decision threw the offshore oil and gas sector into turmoil as companies withdrew their plans lodged with the regulator and launched new rounds of consultation to ensure the plans could withstand a similar legal appeal.

After a series of legal hearings, NOPSEMA in December accepted Santos’ revised plan for drilling at Barossa and, according to the regulator’s website, the work will commence in January.

Despite the legal challenges, Santos as recently as October said the key project remained on track to start production in the first half of 2025 within the budget of $US3.7 billion ($5.5 billion).

The Barossa field will supply gas to Santos’s Darwin liquefied natural gas plant that shut down in late 2023 when the gas supply from the Bayu-Undan field in Timor-Leste waters was exhausted.

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Source: Thanks smh.com