Barossa costs to mount as UWA academic savaged by judge for ‘lies’ and ‘manipulation’ over Aboriginal claims

Adrian Rauso
The Nightly
3 Min Read
The University of Western Australia is tight-lipped over whether it will back the academic lashed by the judge in the Santos Barossa case.
The University of Western Australia is tight-lipped over whether it will back the academic lashed by the judge in the Santos Barossa case. Credit: CUHRIG/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The University of Western Australia is tight-lipped over whether it will back the academic lashed by the judge in the Santos Barossa case for lying to Tiwi Islanders and manipulating underwater cultural heritage research.

Separately, a leading energy analyst believes the cultural heritage research at the heart of the court action will be a factor in a massive cost blowout to develop the offshore gas project.

Federal Court Justice Natalie Charlesworth on Monday ruled in favour of Santos building its $5.8 billion Barossa gas project off the coast of the Northern Territory’s Tiwi Islands, after she threw out claims the project’s export pipeline would destroy Aboriginal ‘songlines’ deep in the ocean.

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She dismissed the case and awarded costs to Santos, who can now lay the 262km pipeline required to activate the Barossa project, 7km off the Tiwi Islands.

The Environmental Defenders Office — who is representing a small number of Tiwi traditional owners opposed to the project — said reports were commissioned that confirmed the pipeline would damage “sea country, dreaming tracks, songlines and areas of cultural significance”.

One of these reports was prepared by UWA associate professor of climate geoscience Mick O’Leary, which includes a map detailing the claimed location of the ‘Crocodile Man’ songline and the resting place of ‘Ampitji’ — also known as the rainbow serpent.

Justice Charlesworth rebuked Dr O’Leary’s conduct in creating the report and the accuracy of the information it contained.

“Dr O’Leary’s admission was freely volunteered, such that he did not lie to the Court. But he did lie to the Tiwi Islanders, and I find that he did so because he wanted his “cultural mapping” exercise to be used in a way that would stop the pipeline,” she said.

“It is conduct far flung from proper scientific method, and falls short of an expert’s obligation to this Court.

“The material supports an inference that Indigenous instructions have been distorted and manipulated before being presented to this Court via an expert report.”

UWA did not respond to The West Australian’s queries as to whether the university still supports Dr O’Leary and his research.

“The University reserves comment on this Federal Court judgment,” a spokeswoman told The West.

“Whether any further action is appropriate will be considered in accordance with internal processes.”

UWA associate professor Mick O'Leary.
UWA associate professor Mick O'Leary. Credit: LinkedIn/Supplied

In November The West revealed a bizarre stoush between Dr O’Leary and another UWA underwater Aboriginal cultural heritage expert.

In 2020, Dr O’Leary said that he, as part of a research collective, had uncovered Australia’s first underwater Aboriginal archaeological site — located in the Dampier Archipelago in north-west WA.

Those findings were challenged in June 2022 via a paper published by UWA marine archaeology professor Ingrid Ward and three other researchers.

However, UWA had Dr Ward’s research paper from academic journal Geoarchaeology retracted.

The retraction request was on internal “ethical approval” grounds — an unusual requirement for the nature of the research taken — The West Australian understands.

Dr Ward told The West in November “there’s nothing wrong with the science” in her research paper.

“The retraction request regards administrative matters and doesn’t make the science invalid at all,” she said at the time.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday Jarden energy analyst Nik Burns indicated that the court-induced delays will now be a factor in pushing the estimated Barossa construction budget from $US4.3b to $US5b ($A7.6b).

The original $US4.3b figure was provided in March 2021.

Mr Burns believes the project may now start in early 2026, around a year later than Santos’ current guidance.

Santos said in early November the delay to the pipeline laying activities was costing it more than a million dollars a day in direct holding costs alone.

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