Tiwi elder takes to Federal Court in first-of-its-kind petroleum project challenge

The case may have significant implications regarding mining companies' legal obligations to First Nations people

Tiwi elder takes to Federal Court in first-of-its-kind petroleum project challenge

A Tiwi elder has brought a first-of-its-kind legal challenge against the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority (NOPSEMA) that is set to go to the Federal Court.

Munupi senior lawman Dennis Tipakalippa challenged the federal regulator’s decision to approve Santos Limited’s Barossa gas project, which would involve the drilling of gas production wells approximately 120km north of the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory, last month. He sought an injunction to stop the drilling of up to eight such wells.

The case is the first to challenge a company’s failure to consult before embarking on an offshore petroleum project. Environmental Defenders Office special counsel Alina Leikin explained that the case “could establish what constitutes adequate consultation with First Nations people in relation to offshore gas developments.”

“It could have significant implications for how mining companies view their consultation obligations with First Nations people,” she said. “In seeking approval for this project, 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.”

Leikin pointed out that Santos Limited failed to provide sufficient information for Tiwi people, who have occupied and cared for the Tiwi Islands for more than 60,000 years, to understand the impact of the project before receiving NOPSEMA’s approval.

“We are going to court because we have not been properly consulted about what is happening to our sea country, so for Santos to begin drilling at this moment shows disrespect for our culture and our interests,” Tipakalippa said in a statement.

He explained that he filed the injunction amid concerns the company plans to push ahead with the ocean floor drilling before the court hears the challenge, which is slated for trial on 22, 23 and 25 August. Leikin also urged Santos to hold off on drilling until the Federal Court made its decision given the “serious spiritual and cultural ramifications for Tiwi people” that the project would have.

Marine scientist Jason Fowler said that drilling production wells would also have a huge impact on marine life, with two years’ worth of chemicals, cement, and waste set to be dumped into the ocean as a result of the project.

“Santos have 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,” said Fowler, who is also an energy campaigner for the Environmental Centre Northern Territory.

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

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