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Environmental rule changes also on horizon for critical minerals sector

David Prestipino -

Impending environmental regulatory changes in the oil and gas industry look set to extend to producers of critical minerals to help them combat a sharp decline in demand and value.

The government and industry-led plan to amend offshore gas regulations has been sparked by lengthy court challenges to several projects from Traditional Owners, which have delayed major projects.

After attending a nickel and lithium roundtable on Friday to help address the sharp drop in the value of Australia's critical minerals, Federal Resources Minister Madeleine King said environmental regulatory approval changes were required to address the slump across the volatile sector, which also includes cobalt, manganese, rare earth and vanadium producers.

At the same time, Santos announced an extra $US200-300 million in capital expenditure had been incurred after its Barossa gas project in the Timor Sea was challenged in the Federal Court by Tiwi Island Traditional Owner Simon Munkara, who claimed construction of its gas export pipeline would threaten cultural heritage.

The Adelaide-based fossil fuel producer also said merger talks with another gas titan Woodside Energy were in "an early stage".

Cost blowouts also hit the world's biggest oil and gas company after lengthy infrastructure delays at its Scarborough gas project in WA's Pilbara last year, sparked by Traditional Owner Raelene Cooper's challenges in the Federal Court on environmental approval grounds.

Woodside said national offshore environmental regulator NOPSEMA had accepted six environment plans for offshore activities while another three were outstanding, and it had spent significant time and effort to consult extensively for years on others with Traditional Owners.

"For the Scarborough seismic activity, we've consulted more than 80 stakeholders, including 10 First Nations groups and the group known as Save Our Songlines, spanning out hundreds of kilometres from the operational area itself," a Woodside spokesperson told National Indigenous Times.

"Since the Federal Court decision, we've undertaken additional consultation with these groups. For all the Scarborough EPs, we've consulted stakeholders along 3,500 km of the coastline."

The crash in the critical minerals industry meanwhile could threaten transition to clean energy and emission reduction targets.

Demand for global supplies of critical minerals was led by the US and China, a hostile rivalry that super-charged investment and approvals for projects there and in Australia, home to abundant supplies, but the boom quickly busted as prices for each material plummeted.

Nickel projects recently approved have been put on ice as the value of existing mines bubbled, with prices hitting a three-year low last week, while many lithium start-ups are facing closure amid uncertainty.

Big players in the critical minerals game have not been immune to the crash either, with Andrew Forrest's $760m purchase six months ago of three mines via his private company Wyloo now closed.

BHP's nickel operations in WA also face increasing vulnerability as other producers, such as Panoramic Resources, are put into administration.

Environmental approval reforms were among five key recommendations AMEC hoped would keep Australia's downstram critical minerals ambitions on track, and align with government and industry desires for a more competitve regulatory framework in the oil and gas sectors.

Among AMEC's key recommendations to support critical mineral producers was structural approvals reform, "namely through Commonwealth reforms to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and delivering on the WA Government's recent Vogel Review – to increase the competitiveness of Australia's regulatory framework, while maintaining our high ESG standards."

Conversely, another key recommendation was for AMEC to "champion a global green transparent price index - that values Australia's leadership in ESG".

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