Tiwi Land Council dismisses cultural heritage report for Santos Barossa gas project pipeline: ABC

By Oliver Chaseling
Posted Oct 29 2023
Click here to read the original article on ABC website

Tiwi traditional owners have opposed the pipeline.

Key points:

  • An anthropological assessment by Santos has found no evidence of cultural heritage sites along the proposed Barossa pipeline route
  • The findings are being disputed by the Tiwi Land Council
  • The regulator has given the green light for construction of the pipeline to begin this year

A major assessment of cultural heritage values by a gas company planning to build an underwater pipeline through Tiwi sea country has ignored the concerns of traditional owners, a land council says.

The assessment report from gas company Santos, written by independent anthropologist Dr Brendan Corrigan, was completed in response to directions from the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) in January.

The direction to conduct the cultural heritage assessments was given “to … complete an assessment to identify any underwater cultural heritage places along the Barossa pipeline route”.

It followed a federal court ruling in December 2022 that Santos and NOPSEMA had failed to ensure Tiwi Traditional Owners were properly consulted on the pipeline.

The pipeline will be needed for Santos to pipe gas from the offshore Barossa field past the Tiwi Islands to Darwin for export.

In the report’s executive summary, Dr Corrigan said: “Having considered the information I have obtained from Tiwi people and relevant organisations through the research reported here, there are no specific ‘underwater cultural heritage places’ along the pipeline route that may be affected by the activities covered by the Gas Export Pipeline Environment Plan.”

An aerial view of aqua blue water lapping along rocks with green scrub in the distance.

The pipeline will run past the Tiwi Islands. ABC News: Michael Franchi

Land council dismisses report

In a rare public statement on the proposed multi-million-dollar gas field development, Tiwi Land Council chief executive officer Robert Graham said Dr Corrigan’s report was “[not] an adequate authority to inform NOPSEMA, Santos or other stakeholders of the relevant Tiwi cultural background”.

Mr Graham, who is also an anthropologist, said the research in Santos’ assessment — which involved months of interviews with various Tiwi clan groups about spiritual significance of the pipeline route — was a continuation of a failure to consult traditional owners properly.

“There are people out there, and not just the people [opposed to the pipeline], but a wider group of Tiwi who are concerned about the possible effects,” he said.

“The anthropologist’s job is to explain the cultural nature of people’s concerns and the report doesn’t do that.”

In a statement, a Santos spokesperson said it respected the cultural heritage of Tiwi people, and the TLC, but that the land council “appears to have misunderstood the purpose of Dr Corrigan’s report, which was solely ‘to identify any underwater cultural heritage places along the Barossa pipeline route’”.

“The pipe has a maximum diameter of 86 centimetres and will sit on the seabed at depths ranging from 33 to 254 metres of water,” the statement said.

“The pipe will be removed when the project is finished.”

Dr Corrigan has been contacted for comment.

Cultural heritage concerns identified

In Dr. Corrigan’s assessment, fears were expressed by Tiwi about risks posed to marine life and sacred sites, but that those concerns were beyond the scope of his report.

“A lot of emphasis has been placed by some individuals interviewed for this research, on the potential risk of industrial accidents to known sacred sites (outside of the proposed gas export pipeline corridor) on the islands and near to shores, with expressed fears including perceived risks to traditional foods and relationships with maritime species,” the report reads.

Mr Graham said any negative effects on culturally significant species such as dugongs and turtles would have implications in the contemporary lives of Tiwi people, beyond an impact on environmental biodiversity.

“They’re economic, they’re also totem animals. They’re part of people’s mythological and religious life,” he said.

“In my view, [Dr. Corrigan] should have talked to people about their concerns and put them in an anthropological form.”

A gas platform in the Timor Sea.

Santos planned to pipe gas from the offshore Barossa field past the Tiwi Islands to Darwin for export. Supplied: ConocoPhillips

Regulator says it’s satisfied

In a statement, a spokesperson for NOPSEMA said its January directions “appear” to have been met by Santos, effectively allowing pipeline construction to proceed.

“NOPSEMA has completed an inspection to monitor compliance against the direction and we are satisfied the documents provided appear to meet the intent of GD1898,” the statement said.

“NOPSEMA will continue to monitor Santos’ activities to ensure compliance in line with their permissioning [sic] documents.”

The regulator said Santos’ 2020 plan for the pipeline’s construction would have to be altered to reflect Dr Corrigan’s findings.

“The environment plan for [the] gas export pipeline was accepted by NOPSEMA in March 2020 and this acceptance remains,” it said.

“Santos were required to make changes to the environment plan with information from the cultural heritage studies associated with the general direction.”

NOPSEMA’s spokesperson said Santos would have to undertake further work to assess environmental risks once the pipeline’s construction was complete.

“There is no environment plan yet subjugated to NOPSEMA for the operation of the pipeline which when submitted would include environment risks of pipeline operations over its life,” it said.

In its latest quarterly report, Santos said the findings of Dr Corrigan meant that it could begin constructing the pipeline and re-commence drilling before the end of 2023.

“Assuming that drilling re-commences before end 2023 and that the gas export pipeline commences installation in 2023, the Barossa project remains on target to commence production in the first half 2025 and within current cost guidance.”