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Win for Gomeroi Traditional Owners opens door to native title claim

David Prestipino -

The future of a $3.6 billion Santos coal seam gas project is unclear after a Federal Court ruling on Thursday.

The court ruled the National Native Title Tribunal should have considered evidence on the environmental impacts of the project near Narrabri, 520km northwest of Sydney, before issuing approval, noting climate change was not adequately assessed in light of a Native Title claim by Traditional Owners - the Gomeroi people - in 2011. 

The tribunal ruled in 2022 that public interest outweighed environmental concerns, a decision Gomeroi applicants appealed to the Federal Court, which found the negative environmental impact of the project would disrupt their rights under the Native Title claim.

Gomeroi woman and campaigner Suellyn Tighe told National Indigenous Times on Thursday she hoped the ruling bore good tidings for others facing the same predicament.

"It's time Native Title started taking into account climate change and the effect of fossil fuels," she said.

"We are hoping this will be beneficial for the Gomeroi Native Title claim, in the sense that it's not within doubt.

The decision (by the NNTT in 2022) was gutwrenching and a blow, as we'd be fighting for so long."

Ms Tighe said Thursday's ruling validated Gomeroi's protracted battle as well as their connection to Country.

"But at the same time it doesn't mean it's the end of the fight, but it's a major, major win for us," she said.

The Federal Court found the NNTT fell into legal error by dismissing the expert evidence of climate scientist, the late Professor Will Steffen.

Santos said on Thursday the court did not make any findings against its conduct and the company had and would continue to negotiate with the Gomeroi people in good faith. 

"Santos will continue to engage constructively with the Gomeroi people and work closely with them to ensure their heritage is protected and they benefit from the project development, including through training and employment, and involvement in all aspects of cultural heritage protection and management," the company said in a statement to NIT.

Santos would continue to work through land access, native title, pipeline licensing and remaining environmental approvals processes to get Narrabri and the Hunter Gas Pipeline ready for a final investment decision.

"The Narrabri Gas Project is 100 per cent committed to the domestic market and could supply up to 50 per cent of NSW's natural gas needs," Santos said. 

"Gas produced close to market will always have a cost advantage over gas imported from other states or overseas, and will help to put downward pressure on domestic gas and energy prices for NSW customers."

Two of the three Federal Court judges on Thursday agreed with the Gomeroi group's argument the NNTT failed to consider climate change as part of Native Title when it approved four future petroleum production leases.

The ruling means the matter will be sent back to the tribunal on March 20 to consider public interest in relation to climate change.

"The appeal will be allowed on the basis of one question of law," the judgment read.

Santos lost the case on one question of law out of an appeal brought on a total of six questions of law.

 

 

Gomeroi Native Title claimants first sought legal advice in December 2022 after the NNTT decision to approve the coal-seam gas project and proposed mining leases on Gomeroi Country in the Pillaga Forest, including 850 new gas wells, despite Gomeroi people not consenting.

The project was being opposed by Gomeroi applicants, led by 19 Traditional Owners, who filed a Native Title claim over the land in 2011, which had yet to be determined but was now likely to be considered in light of Thursday's ruling.
 
A member of the Gomeroi applicant and a representative for the Narrabri and Wee Waa region, Lee-Ann Pearl Davern, told NIT in 2022 the Pilliga "has always been a part of who we are as Gomeroi people".

"It's hard to describe that deep of a connection in words but our connection to the Pilliga has always been there for us - we have continued to live and survive off the Pilliga," she said.

"If the Narrabri Gas Project goes ahead, we feel we will lose a core part of us."

Sue Higginson, NSW Greens spokesperson for Climate Change, Environment and First Nations Justice and Heritage, said the ruling was a big win for the environment and "a beacon of hope for future appeals".

"The ruling, made on the basis that greenhouse gas emissions from the project were not assessed properly and will therefore have negative impacts on the Gomeroi Native Title Claim sets a massive precedent for the future of similar appeals," she said on Thursday.

- with Emma Ruben

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