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Federal Court to travel to Tiwi Islands for ‘historic hearing’

The Federal Court will travel to the Tiwi Islands to take on-country evidence from traditional owners, in a legal battle over the approval of gas drilling for Santos’ Barossa Gas Project.

user iconJess Feyder 15 August 2022 The Bar
Federal Court to travel to Tiwi Islands for ‘historic hearing’
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22 August will mark the first time on-country evidence is heard in a judicial review challenge to the approval for an offshore fossil fuel project. 

Tiwi elder and senior lawman Dennis Tipakalippa is suing the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority (NOPSEMA), the federal offshore gas regulator, for their approval of Santos’ plans to drill the Barossa gas field. Mr Tipakalippa is being represented by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO).

This is the first case in Australia brought by First Nations peoples challenging an offshore project approval over lack of consultation.


Tiwi Islanders and Larrakia elders are deeply troubled by the Santos project, if it goes forward, it is expected to have destructive impacts on their sea country, marine life, culture, and way of life. 

“We spend a lot of time out in the water — hunting, fishing. We only ever take what we can eat in a day, no more,” said Mr Tipakalippa. “We respect our homelands, our sea country, and it looks after us.”

“We have cared for this sea country for millennia,” he said. “Once those holes are drilled into the ocean floor, that cannot be undone.

“Santos should have respected us and consulted in the proper way. They think they can just go ahead with drilling our sea country without even talking to us. It feels like a big backstab.”

Last month, Mr Tippakalippa lost an injunction application that tried to prevent the commencement of drilling until after his case was heard.

Santos is now drilling up to eight wells in Tiwi sea country despite ongoing opposition from Tiwi people and Mr Tipakalippa’s legal challenge being before the Federal Court.

The court has recognised that it is necessary for Mr Tipakalippa to give cultural evidence on country, on the very coastline closest to the drilling site. This comes as a huge relief to Mr Tipakalippa and his community, the Munupi, who have been fighting long and hard for their voices to be heard. 

Jason Fowler, energy campaigner at the Environment Centre NT, said the case is of immense historical, cultural, and environmental significance. 

The on-country hearing will provide a way for Mr Tipakalippa and other Munupi witnesses to communicate the cultural and spiritual impacts that will be caused by Santos’ fossil fuel project if it continues,” said Mr Fowler. 

Alina Leikin, special counsel for the EDO, said that Mr Tipakalippa would argue that Santos failed to provide him and his community with the opportunity to have a say about the drilling, despite the stakes for their culture and way of life.

“The decision of the Federal Court to hear evidence on the Tiwi Islands in this case means a great deal to the Munupi community.

“The Munupi witnesses will be able to tell their story on their own terms, including in the form of song and dance,” said Ms Leikin. 

After the on-country hearing, the Federal Court will relocate to Darwin from 23 to 26 August, where the remainder of the proceedings will take place. 

Solidarity action with Tiwi people will take place on 24 August, where members of the Darwin community, Tiwi elders, as well as federal and local MPs will gather in front of Parliament House.