The Barossa gas project, a proposed 285km gas pipeline connecting the Barossa field and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Darwin, Australia, has been facing approval woes for some time. First, a December 2022 Federal Court ruling rejected approval for offshore drilling, citing failures to consult Tiwi Islanders about drilling in their ancestral waters. Now, traditional landowners on the island of Minjilang, also known as Croker Island, claim that Santos did not consult their community before resubmitting drilling plans to regulators in July.
Following the 2022 Federal Court ruling, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) advised that a consultation process respecting the cultural traditions of affected individuals be carried out. However, the Minjilang people allege this was not handled well. Isabelle Lami Lami, a traditional owner in Minjilang, said that Santos refused to wait until their community had met to discuss the consultation, claiming the company “came to the community against our wishes, they just rocked up on a helicopter”.
Lami Lami has said her people fear that sacred sites in the Minjilang people’s waters could be harmed by the proposed drilling, noting “we also have our rainbow serpent, who protects us and our community – she cannot be disrupted, disturbed or harmed in any way”.
The accusations are a major blow for Santos, which has been paying to keep a drilling rig on standby while fighting these legal battles for almost a year. While Santos did carry out in-depth consultation on the Tiwi Islands following the Federal Court ruling, any potential failure to consult Minjilang islanders could threaten Santos’ plans. The company has previously stated that it hoped to resume drilling in the area by the end of 2023, with first production from the project slated for early 2025, but further legal troubles could disrupt these plans.
Santos claims that company representatives visited Minjilang in July and August, having received the required travel permits. A Santos spokesperson said that “members of the Croker Island community met with Santos representatives willingly”.
It is unclear how long the regulatory process will last. A spokesperson for NOPSEMA stated that it could not give a time frame for approval or rejection of the new Barossa drilling plan due to “the complexity and sensitivity of this assessment”.