Aerial view of Tiwi Islands
Claims by Tiwi Islanders songlines would be disrupted by a gas pipeline have been dismissed. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS
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Indigenous groups and gas giants promised clearer rules


January 16, 2024

Indigenous leaders and gas giants have been promised clearer guidelines after confusion over an offshore project ended up in court.

Resources Minister Madeleine King has expressed sympathy with traditional owners who failed to stop construction of a gas pipeline, sparking calls for more clarity in the approval process.

Tiwi Islanders lost a Federal Court case against Santos’ plan to build a pipeline from the Barossa gas field in the Timor Sea to Darwin.

Madeleine King in parliament
 Resources Minister Madeleine King says both industry and traditional owners want to see change. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

Ms King said a legal appeal from traditional owners would be a “reasonable thing to do” but backed the Federal Court’s decision.

“I can understand (the judgement) is disappointing for those that lodged the objection to the Barossa project, and I want to make clear, I care about the concerns of all of those involved,” she told ABC Radio on Tuesday.

“But I would say the Federal Court was well placed to assess the evidence before it and reach a judgment and that’s precisely what has happened.”

Tiwi Islanders argued the pipeline would disturb the travels of an ancestral being of fundamental importance in their culture, Ampiji, a rainbow serpent, and the Jirakupai or Crocodile Man songline.

The judge said there had been a significant degree of divergence in traditional owners’ accounts about Ampiji and the Crocodile Man songlines and she wasn’t satisfied cultural heritage would be disturbed.

“I have drawn conclusions about the lack of integrity in some aspects of the cultural mapping exercise, which undermined my confidence in the whole of it,” Justice Charlesworth said.

Tiwi Islander Simon Munkara
 Ms King said she felt for Tiwi Islanders after the Federal Court judgment. Image by HANDOUT/TYMUNNA CLEMENTS 

The federal government indicated it would re-examine the consultation process for offshore projects.

Ms King said there was uncertainty from parties involved in the process over what was needed and requirements must be strengthened.

“We’ve heard from (industry) there’s not enough precision in relation to what consultation may be,” she said.

“Equally, we’ve heard from local communities as well as traditional owners that there is some confusion about what’s expected of them.”

Greens senator Dorinda Cox said while the judgment was disappointing for traditional owners, it gave the government an opportunity to properly engage with a proposed bill she prepared regarding protection of sea country.

Senator Cox has introduced to parliament a bill that would guide standards of consultation with traditional owners, ensure they were included as “relevant people” in the process and have underwater cultural heritage identified and protected.

“We need to ensure that traditional owners and knowledge holders have the opportunity to be genuinely consulted,” she told AAP.

“That’s non-existent under the current legislation.”

Dorinda Cox at Senate estimates
 Greens Senator Dorinda Cox has put a private bill on the table. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

Opposition senator Jonno Duniam said confidence in the regulatory process needed to be restored and urged the government to defund the Environmental Defenders Office, which ran the case on behalf of Tiwi Islanders.

“The EDO’s case has proven to be a waste of valuable time and resources for all involved,” he said.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Eva Lawler said the judgment was a good decision and work was needed to reassure industry to invest in the Top End.

Ms Lawler will travel to Japan next week to meet with Japanese oil and gas company INPEX.

“What we can do in the territory is to provide that surety to the onshore oil and gas industry,” she said.

“You have to work with environmental groups and you have to work with traditional owners.”

Australian Energy Producers said the project had incurred substantial delays as a result of a broken regulatory system.

“Reform of the offshore approvals system is urgently needed to put an end to the lawfare as activists seek to exploit ambiguities in the regulations,” chief executive Samantha McCulloch said.