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Indigenous Australians win legal fight against gas project

December 2, 2022

Tiwi people argued they should have been consulted before a massive gas drilling project started near their island, the Federal Court of Australia ruled. The ruling could slow other offshore projects.

Two women of the Munupi Clan from the Tiwi Islands wear face paint while protesting outside the Federal Court of Australia in November 2022
Members of the Munupi Clan from the Tiwi Islands held a demonstration outside the Federal Court in NovemberImage: Tamati Smith/Getty Images

A group of indigenous Australians hailed a "historic decision" by the country's Federal Court on Friday to delay plans for a massive gas project in the Timor Sea.

Dennis Tipakalippa, a Munupi clan elder from the remote Tiwi Islands, has been fighting a legal battle against oil and gas producer, Santos, who has been drilling for gas off northern Australia.

"We have fought to protect our sea country from the beginning to the end and we will never stop fighting," Tipakalippa said.

Santos, one of the country's largest oil and gas producers, said it would apply for fresh approvals for the $3.6 billion (€3.41 billion) Barossa gas project.

Tiwi Island Regional Council Mayor Pirrawayingi Puruntatameri and Manupi Elder Dennis Tipakalippa
Tipakalippa (right) contended that the Barossa project posed a risk to sacred sites and spiritual connection Munupi of the Tiwi Islands had with the seaImage: Aaron Bunch/AAP/IMAGO

New 'obstacles' for offshore gas projects 

In September, a court revoked environmental approval for the project after Tipakalippa and the Munupi clan raised concerns that it could wreck important ocean food sources, and blight their connection to a spiritually significant area.

Santos appealed the judgment, but three Federal Court judges ruled on Friday that the company had not consulted all the indigenous people on the Tiwi Islands that should have been contacted about the environmental plan.

The court's decision means all offshore developers will have to consult a wide range of groups when seeking regulatory approvals. This would include groups with cultural interests.

"Santos and every other gas company must take note that this is our country and we must be consulted," Tipakalippa said.

In turn, industry representatives were 

"There is now the risk of more delays and obstacles in the progression of important energy projects," Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association Chief Executive Samantha McCulloch said.

Munupi clan hope for permanent end to offshore gas drilling

The Barossa gas field is about 140 kilometers (87 miles) north of the Tiwi Islands.

Santos would now need to seek new approvals before drilling. Despite the setback, the company expressed confidence that the exploitation of the field could start as early as 2025.

But Alina Leikin, a lawyer at the Environmental Defenders Office, who represented Tipakalippa and the Tiwi Island community, said they hoped the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority would permanently stop the project.

"The community are hopeful that the regulator and Santos will understand and appreciate the depth of their concern and their desire to protect their Sea Country and won't go ahead with this drilling," Leikin said.

lo/dj (AFP, Reuters)