Australian oil and gas producer Santos has delayed the Barossa offshore gas development project after the country’s offshore regulator halted planned offshore pipeline work citing concerns over indigenous heritage.

Offshore environmental regulator NOPSEMA has asked Santos to recruit independent experts to determine if any places along the proposed 262km pipeline route have cultural or spiritual significance to the indigenous people of the Tiwi Islands. It also suggested changing plans if necessary. Construction on the pipeline was set to begin in late January. 

In December, Reuters reported that a court judgement ruled that Santos must engage indigenous people on the Tiwi Islands in the project’s drilling environmental plan.

In the same month, Santos’ appeal to resume drilling at its Barossa gas development was denied. The court overturned NOPSEMA’s approval of the Barossa Gas Project’s Drilling Environment Plan, with a full bench supporting the earlier finding that the corporation needed to engage traditional owners more effectively while formulating its environmental plan for NOPSEMA.

The $3.6bn gas project’s pipeline construction was scheduled to begin at the end of January, with the firm intending to produce gas in the first half of 2025.

According to Australia’s Environmental Defenders Office Alina Leikin, the regulator’s judgement recognised the pipeline presented serious dangers to Tiwi’s cultural and spiritual heritage and compelled Santos to analyse those concerns thoroughly.

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Traditional owner Therese Wokay Bourke also praised NOPSEMA’s involvement. “This gives me a sense of relief because it means that our ancestral spiritual and cultural connection to underwater spiritual heritage will be preserved,” she said. 

The ruling does not prevent construction on the pipeline installation from the beginning. Nonetheless, a regulator spokesperson stated, “Santos won’t undertake any work that may result in impacts and risks that haven’t been adequately identified, evaluated and managed.”