A legal challenge by a Mardudhunera woman has forced Woodside Energy to pause plans to begin seismic blasting as part of a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) project offshore Western Australia. Traditional Custodian Raelene Cooper successfully filed an urgent injunction with the Australian Federal Court, asking for plans to be halted until the validity of approvals for the blasting had been confirmed.

Last month, Cooper filed a legal challenge regarding the approval of plans for seismic blasting, aided by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), an environmental legal defence charity. She alleges that she and her community were not properly consulted as required by law before permits were issued by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), Australia’s offshore regulator. 

The Mardudhunera (sometimes also called Martuthunira) are a group of Aborginal peoples with traditional lands on the coast of Western Australia. They are one of several Aboriginal groups harking from Murujuga, a territory consisting of a narrow peninsula in the Pilbara region as well as 42 islands off its coastline. With more than one million recorded petroglyphs, Murujuga has the world’s largest concentration of ancient rock art, dating back more than 40,000 years. 

Concerns have been raised by Cooper and her community about the impact seismic blasting can have on whales, which in Mardudhunera culture are said to carry songlines – paths across the world connecting individuals and their ancestral lands. Seismic blasting can interfere with the navigational abilities of whales, as proven by an incident in the south of Western Australia, where 100 whales fatally beached themselves after seismic blasting was carried out near their habitat. 

Woodside had planned to undertake seismic blast testing as part of its Scarborough Gas Project, located 375km off the coast of Western Australia. According to the EDO, this LNG proposal would release an estimated 878.02 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. Following the injunction application notice, Woodside agreed to refrain from carrying out seismic blasting until a further hearing on 8 September to determine the validity of approvals granted to them by NOPSEMA. 

Woodside did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, their webpage on the Scarborough Gas Project states that “Woodside continues to work with Traditional Custodians to identify, manage and protect heritage in the area to support the development of a Cultural Heritage Management Plan. Following the discovery of Australia’s first subsea Indigenous artefacts in the waters off Murujuga in July 2020, Woodside has proactively sought to understand the potential heritage values of the submerged cultural landscape for the Scarborough pipeline.” 

However, EDO Special Counsel Clare Lakewood said: “Woodside wants to press ahead with this seismic blasting while the issue of whether their approval is valid remains unresolved. In the circumstances, our client felt she had no choice but to ask the court for an urgent injunction to stop this blasting from taking place.” 

“When NOPSEMA allowed this blasting, it was on the condition that our client should be properly consulted before it went ahead. Our client argues that the consultation requirements need to be met before NOPSEMA can approve, not afterwards, and in any case, the consultation has not taken place,” she added. 

A statement issued by Raelene Cooper added:  

“We are all responsible, and we are all accountable. Open your eyes and wake up Australia, wake up world – if we don’t act, then we too face the same fate as those majestic animals who beached themselves to get out of the water. We humans are killing them slowly, and each other.”