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Tiwi Islanders win last-minute bid to temporarily halt Santos' Barossa gas project

Brendan Foster -

A Tiwi Traditional owner has won a last minute bid to temporarily halt oil giant Santos from building a $5.8 billion Barossa gas project in the Timor Sea.

Jikilaruwu man Simon Munkara lodged an urgent injunction on Monday with the Federal Court arguing Santos' 262-kilometre underwater pipeline would damage Sea Country, dreaming tracks, songlines and areas of cultural significance.

Mr Munkara asked the court for an injunction to stall pipeline construction until Santos had submitted a new environment plan to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Management Authority so that the pipeline's impact and risk to underwater cultural heritage are properly assessed.

Mr Munkara argued commencing the pipeline work under these circumstances breaches environmental regulations because there is a significant new environmental impact or risk that has not been assessed and accounted for in the Environment Plan.

The court heard that Santos' ship had left Darwin Harbour last night and was hours away from beginning work on the pipeline.

On Thursday afternoon, Justice Natalie Charlesworth found the court had jurisdiction to hear the case and Munkara had standing to bring the proceedings.

Justice Charlesworth ordered that work on the pipeline cease until 5pm on 13 November when the matter will return to court.

Jikilaruwu Traditional Owner Simon Munkara said the Elders were serious about protecting their Country.

"This is our obligation," he said. "I'm doing this for my kids, so that our culture can be passed on to future generations".

Alina Leikin, Special Counsel for the Environmental Defenders Office said she was very relieved.

"Santos' crews were hours away from beginning work on this pipeline which poses significant risks and impacts to our client's Sea Country," she said.

"We now have a chance to put forward our client's reasons why Santos' Environment Plan is not fit for purpose and must be revised and resubmitted.

"As her honour noted, Mr Munkara has been pressing NOPSEMA for many months to require Santos to revise its plan, and so he can be consulted.

"We are glad her honour found that Mr Munkara can bring this civil enforcement against Santos directly so that he can be heard and the risks to his Sea Country can be properly assessed."

In September last year, the Federal Court stopped Santos from drilling eight gas wells in the Barossa gas fields, north-west of Darwin because it had failed to consult with Tiwi Island Traditional Owners over the project.

Santos put out a statement on Thursday after the Federal Court decision saying it would defend the proceedings at the next court date.

"Santos notes the Federal Court of Australia has today granted an interim injunction to prevent Santos from commencing to lay the Barossa Gas Export Pipeline (GEP) until 13 November 2023," the statement said.

"This decision is in connection with an application by Mr Simon Munkara seeking an order that Santos revise and resubmit the Environment Plan (EP) that was accepted by the regulator, NOPSEMA, in March 2020.

"Mr Munkara alleges laying the GEP will impact submerged Tiwi cultural heritage, creating a new environmental risk."

According to Santos, an independent expert anthropologist concluded that there were no such underwater cultural heritage places, following interviews with around 170 Tiwi people and extensive archaeological and anthropological literature and studies.

"These studies included consideration of independent expert archaeological, geological and sedimentological assessment of the pipeline route.

"Santos updated the EP to reflect the recommendations of the independent expert anthropologist, through its approved Management of Change process which is part of the GEP EP."

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