CANBERRA: Indigenous traditional owners on Wednesday won a court challenge that prevents an energy company from drilling for gas off Australia’s north coast.
The Federal Court decision against Australian oil and gas company Santos Ltd. was a major win for Indigenous rights in the nation.
Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa, who was described in court documents as an elder, senior lawman and traditional owner of the Munupi clan on the Tiwi Islands, had challenged the regulator’s approval of Santos’ $3.6 billion plan to drill the Barossa Field beneath the Timor Sea.
Justice Mordy Bromberg quashed the February decision by the regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, to allow the drilling.
The judge found the regulator should not have been satisfied that the project’s drilling plan met legal criteria.
Tipakalippa had argued that the regulator could not be “reasonably satisfied,” as required by law, that Santos had carried out necessary consultations about its drilling plans.
Santos had not consulted with his clan, Tipakalippa said, and he feared the project would harm the ocean environment.
Santos foreshadowed an appeal before three Federal Court judges.
“Given the significance of this decision to us, our international joint venture partners and customers, and the industry more broadly, we consider that it should be reviewed by the Full Federal Court on appeal,” the company said in a statement.
Santos described the ruling as a “disappointing outcome,” and said the company had engaged with Indigenous organizations on the Tiwi Islands and the Australian mainland about the proposed drilling.
Drilling has been suspended pending a successful appeal or a renewed application for the regulator’s approval, Santos said.
The Barossa Field is 265 kilometers (165 miles) north of the gas-hub city of Darwin on the Australian mainland and 138 kilometers (86 miles) north of the Tiwi Islands.
The plan is to pipe the gas past the islands to Darwin.
Munupi is one of eight Tiwi Islands clans and its traditional land is closest to the gas field.
Tipakalippa claims that he and other Tiwi Islanders hold “sea country” rights including and beyond the Barossa Field.
Santos, Australia’s second-largest independent gas producer, has already begun drilling the field.
Bromberg went to the Tiwi Islands last month and took evidence about the Munupi people’s connection to the land and sea from several witnesses in words, song and dance.