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Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa standing on a beach
Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa, a senior Munupi man at Pirlangimpi on Melville Island. His community is pushing back against a bid by Santos to develop a gas field off shore. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

‘We will win’: Tiwi Islanders draw a line in the sand against Santos gas project and ‘white fella rule’

Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa, a senior Munupi man at Pirlangimpi on Melville Island. His community is pushing back against a bid by Santos to develop a gas field off shore. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

There is hope on the Tiwi Islands after a landmark court case forced company to consult traditional owners

In a sport and rec shed at Pirlangimpi on the north-west coast of Melville Island, off the coast of Darwin, senior Tiwi elder Pirrawayingi is talking about maritime boundaries.

“Boundaries like in the sea – that’s white fella rule,” he says.

“When they draw boundary in the sea, we’re not interested in that because our dreaming, it goes everywhere. You can’t measure that.”

Pirrawayingi, mayor of the Tiwi Islands regional council, is addressing about 100 Tiwi people during a break in a combined clan group meeting with Santos about the fossil fuel company’s plans to drill for gas in the sea north of Melville Island.

It’s 22 March, six months and one day since the senior Munupi lawman Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa won a landmark federal court case against the drilling permit for Santos’s Barossa offshore gas project.

Pirrawayingi addresses a community meeting
Pirrawayingi, a Tiwi elder, addresses the community meeting with Santos at Pirlangimpi about the proposed Barossa gas project.

That case, and a subsequent appeal, found that the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (Nopsema), had failed to assess whether Santos had consulted with everyone affected by the proposed drilling.

The Barossa project would involve drilling for gas in the Timor Sea and constructing a pipeline to pump it more than 200km to Darwin for processing.

Tipakalippa’s lawyers successfully argued that the Tiwi Islands traditional owners were an interested party, whose spiritual connection to land and sea country meant Santos was required to consult them.

The fossil fuel company was ordered to stop the drilling it had started for eight exploratory wells about 100km off the Tiwi coast.

Its drilling rig remains parked offshore, a barely visible speck when seen from the flight between Darwin and Garden Point airport, while senior Santos executives spend weeks meeting clan groups on Melville and Bathurst islands to provide information that should have been available when the company took over the project from ConocoPhillips in 2020.

At the 22 March meeting, which Tiwi people gave Guardian Australia permission to attend and report on, there is optimism among the traditional owners and a readiness for a bigger fight they believe they can win.

As one Tiwi man says bluntly to the 12 company representatives at the front of the sports club, where a screen displays the blue Santos logo and the words “We are here to listen”: “Santos, [you] bring all your projects here and we say no, take your project somewhere else.”

Aerial view of houses among trees in a coastal tropical town
The town of Pirlangimpi on Melville Island

A massive gas industry expansion

Tiwi Islanders are just some of the First Nations peoples who are on the frontline of a proposed massive expansion of the gas industry across the Northern Territory.

Guardian Australia spent two weeks in the territory speaking to communities affected by these developments – from the Barossa offshore gas field to fracking in the Beetaloo basin in the Barkly region, and the Middle Arm industrial precinct in Darwin Harbour – which the Albanese government has backed with $1.5bn in funding.

The political backdrop is one of contradiction.

Australia is undergoing more rapid changes in Indigenous and environmental affairs than it has in a decade, with the upcoming referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament, the passage of the Climate Change Act to legislate emissions reduction targets and reforms to cultural heritage laws in the wake of the inquiry into the destruction of Juukan Gorge.

At the same time, the federal and Northern Territory governments have stated their support for new gas development – a position that is incompatible with the goal to limit global heating to 1.5C and poses risks to biodiversity, water and culture.

There is strong opposition from many traditional owners to the gas industry’s plans for the territory. Only a small portion of the area covered by these projects falls under land rights legislation that grants traditional owners veto rights over developments.

This means many Aboriginal people concerned about the effects of these projects have what former native title lawyer and current executive director of the Environment Centre NT, Kirsty Howey, describes as a “compromised legal space in which to assert their rights and views”.

For offshore projects, even where native title over the sea exists, the law only requires resource companies to notify native title organisations – not traditional owners themselves – of their plans.

There is no obligation on gas companies, for example, to enter into negotiations for an agreement with traditional owners, unlike for onshore projects such as fracking in the Beetaloo basin.

People sitting in the audience
Locals at the Pirlangimpi meeting with Santos in March. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“That meant that for Tiwi traditional owners, native title was next to useless as a vehicle for asserting their views about the Barossa gas project,” Howey says.

In fact, the federal court determined it was actually Australia’s petroleum laws that gave them a right to be consulted.

“That was the real significance of the case, it sidelined native title and has forced gas companies to consult with First Nations people directly about offshore projects in a way they haven’t previously,” she says.

“At the same time, this falls far short of a veto. While Santos is required to provide information to Tiwi people about the project, Tiwi people still don’t have the right legally to stop it.”

‘We are with the land. We are one’

Front beach at Pirlangimpi is a sliver of bay shaded by bush apple trees that look out across still seas and Bathurst Island’s Ten Mile beach. The tides here have advanced 40m to 50m in recent decades.

The seas around the Tiwi Islands are home to mud crabs, fish and turtles, important sources of food for Tiwi people and a part of dreaming stories that connect them to the land and sea.

A man walking along the beach with mangroves in the background
The beach at Pirlangimpi. The waters around Melville Island support a diverse range of marine life. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

In their dreaming, the rainbow serpent Ampiji protects sea country and will show itself as a warning if something is about to happen. Tiwi people say Ampiji showed itself at Front beach on Munupi country in 2018.

They say if gas drilling and a pipeline that would come within 7km of the islands go ahead, Ampiji could be disconnected from areas it protects, making people vulnerable and interrupting the entire system they live by.

“We believe that if anything is disturbed on land or sea, then there are repercussions,” Pirrawayingi says.

“That’s why we believe earthquakes start, because they’re drilling the land. And when they’re drilling the land, they’re drilling inside our body, because we are with the land. We are one.”

Court judgment a ‘gamechanger’

At the sport and rec shed, Santos representatives are making an effort. By any measure, the Barossa project is facing trouble.

In addition to having its drilling approval overturned in court, Santos has been ordered to start underwater cultural surveys for its pipeline after a raid by the offshore petroleum regulator on the company’s Adelaide offices in December established it had not done this work. Multiple other environmental and operational approvals are outstanding.

In the period in which Santos was consulting Tiwi people, the federal parliament has also been debating amendments to the safeguard mechanism that are meant to limit emissions from industry. Weeks later, those amendments passed, setting the baseline for new gas projects at net zero, which some analysts say could make the Barossa gas field, with its 18% CO2 content, unviable.

Santos says it plans to push ahead after taking a “final investment decision in 2021 on this very important project for regional energy security and for the Northern Territory economy”.

A company spokesperson says gas from the project has already been sold on long-term contracts to customers in Japan and South Korea. They also said a proposed carbon capture and storage project in depleted gas reservoirs beneath the Timor Sea “will make Barossa and Darwin LNG one of the lowest-carbon LNG projects in the world”.

At the 22 March meeting, company representatives have brought visual materials at the request of Tiwi people. They begin by saying, “We’re here to seek your feedback, we take it very seriously.” Any specific questions that they can’t answer, they promise to respond to later. They tell the audience that Santos representatives will be a regular presence on the islands over the coming months and may approach people and ask them questions.

Among the executives in the room are Santos’s executive vice-president – eastern Australia, Brett Darley, and the vice-president of environment, health, safety, security access and Aboriginal engagement, Nick Fox. Also present is Richard Lilly from Allens, the legal firm that acted for the company in court.

The difference between the company’s behaviour in this meeting and its aggressive tactics during the 2022 legal battle is marked. During court proceedings, Santos cross-examined First Nations witnesses during an on-country hearing to try to cast doubt over their evidence about cultural and spiritual connections to sea country.

At various turns, the company’s litigation tried to diminish the interests of Tiwi people, even comparing their spiritual and cultural interest to a pastime or hobby.

Women in the audience listening
Community members at the meeting in Pirlangimpi. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Alina Leikin, senior counsel at the Environmental Defenders Office, which acted for Tipakalippa, said the federal court judgment was a gamechanger for First Nations people and communities affected by offshore fossil fuel projects.

“Before, mining companies could completely ignore and sideline First Nations people,” she says.

“They didn’t even give people the respect of informing them about projects on their doorstep that could have catastrophic consequences on their cultural practices and the way of life they have preserved for millennia.

“The court dragged mining companies kicking and screaming to acknowledge and finally listen to First Nations people.”

Santos says it wants input

Darley tells the meeting the company is there to be open and transparent and wants Tiwi people to have input into its plans. He invites audience members to take as many notes as they want, as Santos staff run through the potential effects of drilling and how Santos will manage them to be “as low as reasonably practicable”.

Santos has prepared a series of videos to try to address concerns Tiwi people have raised about vessel collisions, the potential for drilling to cause a spill – which the company says is a remote risk – and the effects this would have on marine life.

One video shows an interactive map demonstrating there is already a lot of shipping traffic in the region. People ask Santos to come back with another one showing what vessel movements would look like during the project’s construction and operations.

A second video explains that the project will be a source of natural gas for many years for things that are essential to Australia and the world. It includes an animation of a drilling pipe making its way past fish into the sea and notes there is a “small risk” something could go wrong that affects the environment.

A third video is a simulation of how a drilling platform would behave in a one-in-10,000-year storm event. The platform bobs up and down in a clear tank of water that Tiwi elder Therese Wokay Bourke tells the room “looks like a bathtub” and not rough seas. To demonstrate the width of the pipeline that would be laid to transport the gas, one of the executives holds up a hula hoop.

A woman speaking into a microphone
Antonia Burke, a Tiwi representative, addresses the meeting. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

A longer video features a narrator reading slabs of text listing potential risks – such as noise and light disturbance, toxic vehicle pollution and the introduction of invasive marine species – and the controls used to manage them. The video uses regulatory jargon, moves quickly and ends with “we are here to listen”.

At no point does Santos raise the impacts of greenhouse gas pollution. It says this will be dealt with at a later stage.

Throughout, questions from the floor show the level of distrust in Santos’s assurances that the environment and sea country will be protected.

“What about the dolphins that died in Western Australia?” Wokay Bourke asks. Her question is in reference to a whistleblower statement tabled in parliament in February, by the independent senator David Pocock, that alleged the company had covered up the severity of a condensate spill from another project off the northern WA coast.

One man wants to know if drilling will lead to increased seismic activity in the area. “You guys are just here to make everybody happy,” he says.

Community members unable to attend have given Tiwi representative and campaigner Antonia Burke a list of questions for Santos to take on notice: Who will clean up a spill if it occurs? Will Tiwi people be compensated if that happens? Will turtles, already under pressure from the climate crisis, be killed by ship movements? Will the project affect the marine food sources the community relies on?

After people ask Santos to leave the meeting briefly so they can talk among themselves, Pirrawayingi tells the room: “It’s about time we dictate how we want things done.

“Because we did white fella way, now it’s about time for them to call on what we want.”

‘Tiwi people are certain they will win’

When Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa received the judgment in his case last year, he felt relief, like he was “on top of the world”.

Sitting under the shade of a bush apple tree on Front beach, he is talking about the life cycles of species around the islands. Birds that lay their eggs at Seagull Island each year and turtles that return again and again to the same nesting grounds. There are camping and hunting spots used by Tiwi families over generations. There are things “in the sea that we get to eat over hundreds of years”. He says there are sites under water that represent intangible spiritual heritage.

“I don’t want this to go ahead,” he says of the development.

Wokay Bourke says it’s obvious that Tiwi people are very concerned but she questions what Santos will do about that.

“Maybe they understand it but I don’t think they give a shit,” she says.

“What’s the purpose of [the meetings] really, because it feels like they still want to go ahead and do it regardless of how we feel.”

Leikin says without a legislated requirement for First Nations people to give free, prior and informed consent for a project, Tiwi people have to fight a battle with Santos rather than simply being able to say no.

“Tiwi people are certain they will win, one way or the other,” she says.

“They are confident that when Santos and the regulator hear and appreciate the depth of Tiwi spiritual connection to sea country and the irreparable harm the project will cause that the project will not proceed.”

Senior Tiwi elder and Pirlangimpi mayor Pirrawayingi. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Two days before Santos’ annual general meeting in April, traditional owners lodged human rights complaints against 12 banks for their involvement in the Barossa project. Tiwi people and Gomeroi people, who are fighting Santos’s Narrabri gas project in New South Wales, attended the meeting to ask questions.

A further human rights complaint, against superannuation funds, was lodged a few weeks later.

Last week Santos concluded its consultation meetings about the drilling, but meetings about other aspects of the project, including underwater cultural heritage, continue.

The company has developed a handout in response to questions raised during the meetings, including on the key concern of how a spill would be dealt with. It reiterates that the company considers the risk of a worst-case scenario spill to be “extremely low” but gives an undertaking that Santos would call Tiwi Resources, which is owned by the clan groups, within eight hours of any event.

It also says it will train Tiwi rangers in rapid spill assessment response. Santos has provided a photo of what a spill assessment kit looks like – a box with personal protective equipment, nets for collecting dead marine life and bottles for sampling.

A company spokesperson says Santos has published detailed information about the project and responses to frequently asked questions on its website.

They say Santos also advertised extensively across Australia to provide ample opportunity for any relevant people to be consulted. “We have applied many of our onshore processes for consultation and we are confident that this will lead to enduring partnerships with Tiwi Island people,” they said.

“We have taken on board feedback from Tiwi Islanders about how they want to be consulted, including in clan meetings on country, with the use of more maps, visual information and videos, with interpreters present and so on.

“Santos has provided extensive information about the very low potential for spills, their potential impacts and spill response processes.”

But Antonia Burke says at every juncture it has been Tiwi people who have had to push for more information. Despite the effect of the court case, she says the consultations have focused on the technical and regulatory aspects of the proposal and have failed to properly grapple with cultural heritage and the connection Tiwi people have to their country.

“[Santos] never consider or talk about cultural heritage, human rights and spiritual connection to land and sea country,” she says.

Santos’s spokesperson says the company “has listened respectfully to all the concerns Tiwi people have raised, including in relation to cultural heritage and connection to country”.

Pirrawayingi says he wants people to understand “what it’s like being an Aboriginal person connected to the sea and the land”.

He points out at the horizon from Front beach.

“Our connection to the sea and its environment, including the animals, is all so relevant to us as the first people,” he says.

“It’s existence.”

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