On the Tiwi Islands, about 80 kilometres north of Darwin, traditional land owners have, since June, been mounting a fierce legal challenge to derail a controversial gas project drilling on sacred land. When the docket was called by the Federal Court on Monday, the case was heard on a beach—for the first time in Australian history.
The case was first launched in June by Munupi Senior Lawman Dennis Tipakalippa, who is suing the oil and gas giant, Santos, for failing to properly consult with traditional owners. He is also suing the federal government for its role in approving the new $4.7 billion offshore gas development, which elders say poses a threat to both the climate and native wildlife.
Now, one month after Santos started drilling for gas in the Timor Sea, part of the Munupi clan’s challenge has been heard by the Federal Court on country. The scene: Justice Mordecai Bromberg, the Santos legal team, and a group of lawyers representing the Munupi clan sat on plastic chairs beneath a pop up canopy, joined by anyone who wanted to come along and watch.
At the centre of the Munupi clan’s legal challenge are claims that Santos’ environmental and cultural consultation process was weakly inadequate. Beyond a smattering of unanswered emails, the court heard on Monday, Santos was never heard from.
Tiwi Islands mayor and senior Munupi traditional owner, Pirrawayingi, told the court that Santos is not thinking about the significance of the sea to Aboriginal people, nor the ever-lasting physical and spiritual damage a major gas spill could do to the entire region.
“When we talk about Sea Country, we as Munupi Traditional Owners do have ownership of it,” Pirrawayingi said.
“That may be difficult for outsiders to comprehend. We are the holders of everything under and in the sea. It is part of us, who we are as traditional Aboriginal people. We need people to understand that.”
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 was slated to begin this year.
A proposal submitted to the regulator by Santos—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.
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.
Paulina Jedda Puruntatameri, a Munupi traditional owner who gave evidence on Monday, told the court that elders have serious concerns that drilling into the Timor Sea, as Santos has already begun doing, would do irreparable damage to sacred sites deep at sea.
“The Songlines go out to deep water, that’s where the turtles are. The deep sea country is part of the Munupi clan. We are connected to the sea. We have a turtle dance and we are connected to those turtles… [there] are sacred sites that are not to be disturbed,” Puruntatameri said.
“They are in the water, there off Melville and Bathurst island as well. They are there in the water.”
The case was returned to the mainland on Tuesday and will be heard through the week until August 26. But it isn’t the first time Indigenous traditional owners on the Tiwi Islands have opened to defend their land against fossil fuel projects.
Earlier this year, efforts were made to derail more than $US700 million worth of foreign investment into the project by suing the South Korean government in a South Korean court.
Before the challenge was eventually overturned, the Export-Import Bank of Korea (KEXIM), a South Korean government export credit agency, temporarily pulled the handbrake on part of the mammoth investment into the Barossa gas project, according to government meeting notes seen by VICE.
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.
In April, 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.”
On Wednesday, a gaggle of federal and local MPs will gather in front of the Northern Territory Supreme Court to show solidarity with Tiwi Island elders and Indigenous communities beating back similar fossil fuel projects on country around Australia.
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.”
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