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Tiwi Islanders defeat Santos-led offshore drilling project in federal court

Traditional owners from the Tiwi Islands have won their David and Goliath battle against a multi-billion dollar offshore gas project near Darwin.

The federal court has shelved Santos’ approval to drill for gas in the Barossa gas field in the Timor Sea.

The Munupi people took the federal offshore oil and gas regulator, NOPSEMA, to court to challenge its decision to approve the Santos-led development.

It was the first ever legal action challenging the lack of consultation in relation to an offshore petroleum project.

Santos received approval in March to drill up to eight gas production wells off the northern beaches of the Tiwi Islands as part of a $4.7bn development which includes a pipeline to an existing LNG facility in Darwin.

But the traditional owners claimed they were not properly consulted by the company or the federal government about the plans, which they feared would harm the marine environment.

Santos V Tiwi Islands
Camera IconMunupi Elder Dennis Tipakalippa says he is ‘the happiest man alive’ following the federal court ruling. Rebecca Parker Credit: News Corp Australia

As part of the five-day hearing in August, the court travelled to the Pitjamirra beach homeland on Melville Island in the Tiwi Islands, where traditional songs and dances were performed as evidence in the case.

Federal court justice Mordecai Bromberg on Wednesday found Santos failed to consult traditional owners as required.

Munupi Elder Dennis Tipakalippa, who represented the community as the plaintiff in the case, said he was “the happiest man alive” following the decision.

“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,” he said.

“Santos tried to get away with not consulting us, but today we have had our voices heard. We cannot be sidelined or silenced.”

Santos v Tiwi Islands
Camera IconMunupi Clan members successfully fought Santos in court to stop it drilling off the coast of the Tiwi Islands. Rebecca Parker Credit: News Corp Australia

Environmental Defenders Office solicitor Alina Leikin said the outcome would have “national and global implications” for consultation with Indigenous peoples on mining projects.

“Today’s decision puts oil and gas companies on notice,” she 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.”

Santos responded to Justice Bromberg’s ruling in a letter to shareholders on Wednesday afternoon, saying it would appeal against the “disappointing” outcome.

“The drilling activities will be suspended pending a favourable appeal outcome or the approval of a fresh environment plan,” the company said.

“Santos will be seeking to expedite these processes.”

The company has previously said the Barossa development and upgrade to the Darwin LNG facility will create 600 jobs throughout the construction phase and secure 350 jobs for the next 20 years of production.

Santos is the majority owner and operator of the development, with Japanese power company JERA and South Korean energy company SK E & S part owners.

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