Gas giant Santos lost a bid to resume drilling at a multimillion-dollar gas field off the Tiwi Islands, but the company is confident the project can get off the ground.
A full federal court on Friday upheld an earlier decision that the offshore gas regulator should not have approved drilling at the Barossa gas field, 265 kilometers northwest of Darwin, and dismissed Santos’ appeal.
Dennis Tipakarippa, a Tiwi Islander and Mnupi tribe, filed a lawsuit against Santos in June, claiming he had not been consulted about the company’s environmental plans.
Federal Judge Mordecai Bromberg ruled in Tipakalippa’s favor in September, ruling that regulators should not have approved the environmental plan.
He suspended the approval and ordered drilling to stop, but Santos appealed the decision last month.
Santos argued that Judge Bromberg had failed to adequately consider what constitutes a “participant” who needs to be consulted.
The company’s counsel, Christopher Horan KC, said that under the rules, a relevant person is any person whose “function, interest or activity” may be affected by the drilling operation.
Mr Horan argued that the traditional owners of the Tiwi Islands have genuine maritime ties.
But federal judges Susan Kenny, Debra Mortimer and Michael Lee dismissed the proposal, saying the interests of the Tiwi islanders were “immediate and direct.”
“It is clear that Tipakarippa and the Mnupi clan had interests within the[regulations]that required consultation,” the judge said.
“Within this regulatory framework, ‘benefits’ include cultural and spiritual benefits of the kind described in the drilling environment plan and the Sea State material in the attachment.”
Tipakalippa said the court’s latest ruling will be communicated to companies.
“We want the whole world to hear us,” he said in a statement Friday.
“We want the whole world to see our power.
A federal court dismissed Santos’ argument that it was impossible to identify and consult all the traditional owners who had an interest in the project.
“These clans are identified by name,” the judge said.
“In modern Australia, there are countless ways to reach out to Indigenous groups.
“Certainly, consultations with indigenous groups may not be as easy (or quick) as emailing an information package.”
In a statement, Santos said it would amend the Barossa Project’s environmental plan and apply for all remaining approvals in accordance with the court’s ruling.
“Santos does not anticipate any material cost or schedule impact and the first gas from the Barossa Gas Project is expected to be delivered in the first half of 2025,” it said.
The Commonwealth Government is also considering the implications for Australia’s offshore environmental and safety regulatory regime.
A spokeswoman for Resources Minister Madeleine King said: “The government expects the industry to make good faith and strong efforts to consult First Nations people as part of the regulatory approval process.
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association has called on the government to reform regulations on consultation requirements.
“The risk of further delays or impediments to progress on critical energy projects is increasing,” a spokeswoman said.
“This is not just one company’s problem.”
The $3.6 billion (A$5.5 billion) offshore natural gas development was expected to create up to 600 jobs and 280km of piped gas to the Darwin LNG facility when production starts in 2025.
The company previously said the project was 43% complete and on schedule before the court’s ruling in September, making it one of the world’s lowest-cost new LNG supply projects.