Australian Indigenous traditional owners stop gas drilling

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — 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.

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.

Munupi is one of eight Tiwi Island 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, argued it had all necessary approvals following consultation with stakeholders.

Santos had argued the Tiwi Islanders were not relevant stakeholders in the project so did not need to be consulted.

Santos has already begun drilling the field but had agreed to halt most work pending Wednesday’s ruling.

The company did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

Santos could potentially consult with the traditional owners and apply again for drilling approval or appeal to the Federal Court full bench.

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.

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