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Major Project Seismic Blasting Activity Halted as Indigenous Land Owner Emerges Victorious in Legal Battle

Australian Energy Producers Chief Executive Samantha McCulloch stated that more obstacles are being placed in the path of critical energy developments. Industry groups believe that a recent legal decision to reject seismic blasting for a major energy project will have a negative impact on future developments. Raelene Cooper, an Indigenous Mardudhunera woman, successfully challenged Woodside Energy’s plan to conduct the activity off the coast of northern Western Australia as part of the company’s Scarborough Gas Project. The project, worth $19 billion, is reported to be the largest new oil and gas project in Australia, with most of its potential gas production intended for Asia.

Samantha McCulloch expressed concern about the increasing obstacles that hinder critical energy developments and their potential impact on domestic energy security, emissions reduction, and economic returns for Australians. Raelene Cooper argued that the regulatory body, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), had not adequately consulted Indigenous stakeholders prior to approving Woodside’s plan for the seismic survey. On September 28, Federal Court Justice Craig Colvin granted an interlocutory injunction to prevent Woodside from carrying out the blasting work.

NOPSEMA had previously approved Woodside’s seismic survey on July 31, despite identifying inadequate consultation with stakeholders. However, the regulatory body attached a condition that required further consultation before the survey could commence. Justice Colvin determined that the regulator had made an error by failing to carry out the consultation before granting the approval. Consequently, the judge set aside NOPSEMA’s decision.

According to the Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO), which represented Raelene Cooper, the regulator should not have accepted Woodside’s plan for the seismic survey. Brendan Dobbie, the EDO Managing Lawyer, stated that the court had heard about the severe harm that seismic testing would cause to Ms. Cooper’s Songlines and culture. He highlighted the potential negative impact of seismic blasting on marine animals, such as whales, including hearing damage, communication disruption, stress, displacement, physical injuries, and death.

Moreover, the Scarborough Gas Project is located in an area called “Murujuga,” which is currently being considered for a UNESCO World Heritage listing due to its extensive collection of Aboriginal rock art. Raelene Cooper argued that Woodside did not adequately consult the traditional custodians of Murujuga regarding the full impacts of its operations on their culture and sacred Songlines. In response to the court ruling, NOPSEMA acknowledged the decision and stated that it would review future regulatory actions to align with the ruling.

Woodside expressed its intention to work with NOPSEMA and stakeholders to develop an accepted environmental plan before proceeding with the seismic survey. Opposition resources spokeswoman Susan McDonald criticized the government for failing to remedy the “broken” approvals process, which has negatively affected offshore development approvals, domestic supply, and energy security. Woodside stated that the court decision did not critique any action taken by the company and that it had made significant efforts to consult on its environment plans to meet regulatory requirements and standards. The judge awarded costs to Raelene Cooper.

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