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$5.8b Santos gas project gets green light as Aboriginal heritage claims dismissed

David Prestipino -

The Federal Court has dismissed First Nations cultural heritage claims in relation to the $5.8 billion gas project by Santos off the Northern Territory coast.

Federal Court Justice Natalie Charlesworth cited a "lack of integrity" in the cultural heritage mapping process that had undermined assertions the company's Barossa gas pipeline would intersect with sacred underwater songlines.

On Monday Justice Charlesworth ordered an application to stop the Barossa gas work be dismissed, and lifted an urgent injunction granted by the Federal Court on November 2, which stopped Santos laying pipeline just hours before work on the project, 265km northwest of Darwin, was to begin.

A small group of Traditional Owners represented by the Environmental Defenders Office told the court there were several cultural features along the area of the pipeline route.

They said the Jikilaruwu, Munupi and Malawu peoples of the Tiwi Islands have a spiritual connection to the area of sea country where the pipeline would pass and its construction would cause damage in several ways, including disturbing the travels of an ancestral being of fundamental cultural importance, Ampiji, a rainbow serpent.

They also argued the pipeline would disturb the Jirakupai or Crocodile Man songline, which runs from Cape Fourcroy on the western most point of Bathurst Island into the deep sea in the vicinity of the pipeline route.

Justice Charlesworth said for the Tiwi applicants to be successful, they needed to show there was a significant new environmental impact or risk, and rebuked new information from an expert report of a University of WA geoscientist, who created a cultural heritage map of the area with Traditional Owners.

"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.

"As a consequence of that conclusion, I am not satisfied there is any risk of environmental impact of the kind asserted by the applicants in this part of the case, and it has therefore been unnecessary to consider whether any such risk should be characterised as 'significant' or 'new'."

She said there had been a significant degree of divergence in Traditional Owners' accounts about the Ampiji and the Crocodile Man songlines.

"On the evidence before me, I am not satisfied that evidence given by the witnesses called by the applicants is broadly representative of beliefs held by the relevant group or groups of people, and so cannot be characterised as a 'cultural feature' of an area, place or ecosystem," Justice Charlesworth said.

She found there wasn't a significant risk to tangible cultural heritage either.

"The evidence establishes nothing more than a negligible chance that there may be objects of archaeological value in the area of the pipeline route," Justice Charlesworth said on Monday.

"I have reached that conclusion largely because I am not satisfied that the expert reports relied upon by the applicants can support the propositions for which they argued."

After an initial hearing in November, Justice Charlesworth granted a partial interim injunction to restrain work on the pipeline, except for in an area about 75km north of the Tiwi Islands and further.

She dismissed the case on Monday, and awarded costs to Santos, who can now lay the 262km pipeline required to activate the Barossa project, 7km off the Tiwi Islands.

Tiwi Islander, Simon Munkara, had initially filed a challenge to the pipeline days before work was due to start in October, saying it would damage sea country and songlines.

He argued Santos had not properly assessed submerged cultural heritage along the route of the Barossa export pipeline, which runs within 7km of Bathurst Island.

Santos plans to extract natural gas from the Barossa field and transport it through pipelines to an existing LNG facility in the NT.

The gas project sits within the Barossa Field of the Timor Sea, about 300 kilometres off the coast of Darwin and 138km north of the Tiwi Islands.

Monday's decision follows confirmation Santos was in talks with Woodside Energy on a potential $80 billion merger.

Some elements of Woodside's $16.5 billion Scarborough gas project in WA are also awaiting environmental regulatory approvals due to cultural heritage claims from Traditional Owners.

Woodside shares were up 1.5 per cent to a six-week high of $31.74 on Monday, while Santos rocketed 3.4 per cent to a two-month high of $7.815 after the Federal Court's decision on Monday.

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