Indigenous Australians Have Derailed a Controversial Gas Project by Suing the South Korean Government

Up to $700 million now hangs in the balance.
Person sitting in garden.
Francisco Babui. Photo by Rebecca Parker

The South Korean government has shelved plans to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a massive gas project in Australia’s far north after Indigenous leaders from the region took them to court, according to government meeting notes seen by VICE.

The Export-Import Bank of Korea (KEXIM), a South Korean government export credit agency, pulled the handbrake on part of a mammoth $US700 million investment into the controversial Barossa gas project in Australia’s Northern Territory last month. 


The notes, which referenced a meeting in March of members of South Korea’s Credit Expansion Committee, showed that the government “withheld” approval of more than a quarter of the funding earmarked for the project. 

Officials now say the decision could render the government’s financial backing as good as “void”, while others have flocked to condemn any form of South Korean support for the project. 

One of them is South Korean National Assembly representative, Jang Hye-Young, who told VICE in an email that the government should cut ties altogether.

“Not only is the Barossa gas project more polluting than other existing gas fields, but it also faces business uncertainty with its incomplete carbon capture and storage scheme, and plummeting long-term liquified natural gas demand,” Hye-Young said.

“Hence, KEXIM must take a step further and withdraw their support for the Barossa project, beyond withholding its investment decision.”

Funding for the project, which is set to be built by oil and gas giant Santos north of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, was halted just days after traditional land owners moved to sue the South Korean government in late March, as part of an effort to derail a core tenet of the project’s financing.

As part of the project, Santos had plans to build a 300 kilometre-long (185 mile) gas pipeline connecting the Barossa gas field to the Darwin liquified natural gas plant, some 500 kilometres (about 310 miles) away. The pipeline, which would be built without First Nations approval, would, it is claimed, disrupt pristine sea turtles and the habitats of other marine life. 


Jikilaruwu Tiwi Island clan leaders Daniel Munkara and Francisco Babui told VICE that, in their view, their people weren’t properly consulted on the project from the jump, and that recent planning developments were even made behind their backs. 

They felt like suing the South Korean government was their best path toward cutting out a substantial portion of the project’s funding.

“Santos did not fully explain their plans to build a gas pipeline along our coast. Santos did not explain any of the risks,” Munkara claimed. 

“We were told briefly about the pipeline in 2018 [by previous owners ConocoPhillips] and we said ‘No’ to the project. They said it wasn’t happening. Now we find out they went behind our backs,” he said.

The controversial Barossa Project has been in the works since 2004, but Tiwi Islanders claim to have only been alerted to the project recently, just months before drilling is slated to begin later this year. 

In the proposal for the project submitted to the Australian offshore petroleum regulator, Santos’s First Nations consultation record – a regulatory requirement for any project that impedes on Indigenous land – showed that the Australian oil and gas giant only sent two emails and made one unanswered phone call to the Tiwi Land Council.

There was no mention of the Larrakia traditional owners. Santos did not respond to a request for comment in time for the publication of this article.


The Tiwi’s court challenge emerges as the latest in a flurry of litigation battles against the public financing of fossil fuels around the world. Among the most recent was a separate landmark victory claimed by campaigners against the South Korean energy company, KEPCO, and their efforts to advance an Australian coal expansion back in February.

Over the last decade, Australia’s fossil fuel industry has pocketed more than $27 billion from public finance institutions, like South Korea’s KEXIM, around the world. Dina Hopstad Rui, a researcher at Jubilee Australia Research Centre, said public financing of this nature is often crucial to getting controversial developments such as the Barossa project over the line.  

“Without [public money], many would just fall over,” Rui said. 

“Most people don’t know it’s happening, but governments around the world are using export credit agencies, such as KEXIM and K-SURE, to quietly funnel taxpayer-backed subsidies to fossil fuel companies,” she claimed.

Criticism over the South Korean government’s involvement in the project hasn’t been limited to its role in funding it, either. Others have circled to condemn the environmental destruction that is sure to strike the region as a result of what is anticipated to become the dirtiest offshore gas project in Australia, set to produce 15.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year.


Jason Fowler, an energy campaigner at the Northern Territory’s Environment Centre, said it’s hard to look past the climate impacts of the project, which is estimated to produce “as much climate damaging pollution as three million passenger cars” for each year it operates. 

“At a time when the International Energy Agency has said that no new gas projects can go online if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, for public financial institutions to be funding this dirty fossil fuel project is reckless and irresponsible,” Fowler said. 

“Climate risks aside, this project could cause serious harm to marine ecology, including the vulnerable Olive Ridley sea turtle, as well as threaten the cultural heritage of the Tiwi people and their sea country,” he said.

Court action mounted by First Nations Australians against the South Korean export credit agency, KEXIM, could end up leaving the government’s entire investment commitment hanging in the balance, according to officials familiar with the proceedings.

One source close to the matter told VICE that a second South Korean export credit agency, the Korea Trade Insurance Corporation (K-SURE), has also conditionally approved an undisclosed amount, thought to be worth “hundreds of millions” of dollars. 

K-SURE’s conditionally-approved investment in the Barossa gas project, sources suggest, could soon be reneged as a result of the South Korean Credit Expansion Committee’s decision to withhold approval for the KEXIM investment.

For traditional land owners, that is the desired outcome. Until they can be heard in Australia, and consulted with on an ongoing basis, this instance of environmental court action isn’t likely to be the last.

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