Santos Receives Approval for Gas Drilling in the Timor Sea Despite Opposition from Tiwi Islanders

 Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

   Santos is gearing up to start drilling in the Timor Sea after getting the green light, even though there's a court dispute over the gas pipeline for the Barossa project.

Last year, a group of Tiwi Islands traditional owners won a court case, tossing out the approval for drilling at the gas field, which is a big project 265km northwest of Darwin. The court told Santos to redo their environmental plan, making sure to consult properly with the Tiwi traditional owners.

Late on Friday, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (Nopsema) gave the thumbs up to the revised drilling plan.

“Santos has conducted further extensive consultation with Tiwi Island people and other relevant persons consistent with the applicable regulations,” the gas giant said on Monday.

While Santos is technically allowed to kick off the drilling part of the project, the federal court is still hashing out the legitimacy of the gas pipeline.

Simon Munkara, a Tiwi Islander, threw a challenge at the pipeline plans just days before work was set to start in October. He claims it could harm the sea country and songlines.

Munkara argues that Santos didn't properly look into the submerged cultural heritage along the Barossa export pipeline route, which passes within 7km of Bathurst Island.

Santos aims to pull natural gas from the Barossa field and move it through pipelines to an existing liquefied natural gas facility in the Northern Territory.

Santos had plans to start laying the pipeline in November to stay on schedule for the project's first gas goal in 2025. They were waiting for Nopsema to give the green light to the updated environmental plan for the drilling.

Now, with the new injunction in place until mid-January, Santos can proceed with pipeline work in an area approximately 75km north of the Tiwi Islands and beyond.

Munkara contends that the pipeline presents a notable new threat or risk to the underwater cultural heritage of the Tiwi, and this was not evaluated in Santos's initial environmental plan for the pipeline, which got the nod from Nopsema.

If there's a noteworthy new impact or risk, the law demands that the party holding the title must present a revised environmental plan to the regulator for approval before they can proceed with the work.

This drilling approval news coincides with Santos revealing discussions with Woodside Energy about a potential merger worth around $80 billion. Woodside's $16.5 billion Scarborough gas project in Western Australia is facing delays, with certain project components still pending regulatory approvals.