Judge dismisses underwater Aboriginal heritage claims against Santos’ $5.8b Barossa gas project

Adrian Rauso
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Santos' Barossa gas export pipeline would run within 7km of Bathurst Island off the coast of Darwin. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)
Santos' Barossa gas export pipeline would run within 7km of Bathurst Island off the coast of Darwin. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS) Credit: AAP

The Federal Court has thrown out underwater Aboriginal songline assertions, giving Santos the green light to push ahead with its $5.8 billion Barossa offshore gas project.

The judgement means Santos can lay the 262km export pipeline off the coast of the Northern Territory’s Tiwi Islands required to bring its Barossa project to life.

Federal Court Justice Natalie Charlesworth ruled on Monday a “lack of integrity” in the cultural heritage mapping process had undermined claims that the Barossa pipeline would intersect with underwater songlines.

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The claims were also not “broadly representative” of the views held by the Tiwi traditional owners impacted, Justice Charlseworth said.

Santos was awarded legal costs by the Court.

A small group of traditional owners — who are represented by the taxpayer-funded Environmental Defenders Office — asserted the pipeline, slated to run at least 7km off the shores of the Tiwi Islands, would intersect with the submerged ‘Crocodile Man’ songline and the underwater resting place of the rainbow serpent.

The Court was told last month Crocodile Man was based on a dreamtime story involving a man transforming into a crocodile and swimming through the ocean.

In addition to songline claims, Justice Charlesworth said on Monday there was a “negligible chance” tangible cultural heritage would be impacted by the pipeline and subsequently lifted the injunction against Santos.

An urgent injunction was granted by the Federal Court on November 2 that halted Santos from laying pipeline just hours before work was set to commence.

This was revised on November 15, but still meant Santos was barred from laying the majority of the pipeline.

This followed assertions the gas pipeline off the coast of the Tiwi Islands would “damage sea country, dreaming tracks, songlines and areas of cultural significance”.

Last month Justice Charlesworth rebuked some of the contents of a cultural heritage map created in June by University of Western Australia associate professor of climate geoscience Mick O’Leary, who was an expert witness called upon by the EDO.

“It’s extreme illogic and it shows — he used the word ‘artistic licence’,” Justice Charlesworth said at the time.

“My oh my, it’s the most unscientific proposition I’ve ever heard, I have to say, from an expert in a witness box, that he took this myth and said, ‘Oh, to make all of this make any scientific sense whatsoever, Crocodile Man is more foundational than the creation story and must have preceded it in time’.”

In November, Santos said it will fork out more than $1 million in holding costs for every day it is unable to install pipeline for the project in the Timor Sea.

At its closest point to land, the Barossa pipeline would be more than 7km offshore at depths between 33m and 254m. The pipeline has a maximum diameter of 86cm and will lay on the seafloor, with no excavation of the seabed required Santos says.

Last month the gas giant confirmed drilling at Barossa based on a new environmental plan was accepted by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority.

Shares in Santos spiked following the judgement, trading up 2.7 per cent to $7.76 each by 9.40am.

MST Marquee energy analyst Saul Kavonic said further obstacles face Barossa despite Santos’ court victory.

“The risk of further challenges continues to linger as long as the uncertain regulations remain as they are,” he said.

“Millions in taxpayer dollars have been spent funding EDO’s activist litigation here, causing hundreds of millions in economic damage.

“Pressure is mounting from industry and unions to clarify the regulations so they are more workable and less subject to activist litigation.”

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