Tiwi Islanders won a monumental federal court ruling against offshore energy giant Santos on Wednesday. The legal decision effectively prevents the company from drilling gas in the traditional waters of Tiwi Islanders without consulting them first.

The decision will prevent development of the $4.7bn Barossa offshore gas and condensate project. Santos hoped the project would provide a new source of gas to the existing Darwin liquified natural gas facility in the Northern Territory of Australia. The company now has to disconnect its rig from the sea north of Melville Island and leave the fields by 6 October. 

Judge Mordecai Bromberg dismissed Santos’ environmental plan, invalidating its authorisation for drilling.

The Tiwi Islands lie off the coast of Australia’s Northern Territory, 80 km north of Darwin, bordering the Timor Sea. Santos’ drilling activities were to take place in the Timor Sea, around 140 km north of the Tiwi Islands. Islanders told the court that the project posed a risk to food sources and a millennium-long spiritual link to Sea Country. 

Dennis Tipakalippa, senior lawman of the Munipi Clan, brought the complaint against Santos.  The Munipi Clan represent the traditional owners of the northern Tiwi Islands. According to environmental law consultancy charity Environmental Defenders’ Office, following the trial, he said: “I am the happiest man alive.

“We want Santos and all mining companies to remember – we are powerful, we will fight for our land and sea country, for our future generations no matter how hard and how long. Santos tried to get away with not consulting us, but today we have had our voices heard.” 

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In a statement, a representative of Santos said: “This is a disappointing outcome. Consistent with previous practice, Santos engaged about the proposed drilling activities with the Tiwi Land Council. Similarly, Santos had engaged about the proposed drilling activities with the Northern Land Council, the Native Title representative body for the Tiwi Islands. Authorities had accepted our efforts to consult with Tiwi Islanders in accordance with the regulations when it decided to accept the environment plan for those activities.

“Project approval uncertainty is a public policy issue that should be urgently addressed by Australian governments to reduce risk for trade and investment in projects around the country.” 

Santos has withdrawn separate proposals for authorisation of a pipeline to the gasfield due to internal concerns that the business could face legal challenges regarding consultation, The Guardian says.

The $3.6 billion offshore natural gas development would have generated up to 600 jobs and pipe gas 280 km to the Darwin LNG facility, with initial production scheduled for 2025.

According to The Guardian, when Dennis launched legal action in June he stated concerns about the effects of a potential oil spill.

“We want Santos and all mining companies to remember, we are powerful, and we will fight for our land and Sea Country, for our future generations. Santos tried to get away [without] consulting us, but today we have had our voices heard,” Dennis said.