Traditional owners in the Northern Territory have sued the South Korean government in a bid to stop the controversial Barossa gas project. Experts warn Barossa would be the dirtiest offshore gas field in Australia.

Tiwi Islander and Larrakia traditional owners filed an injunction in March. Their aim is to stop South Korean export credit agencies from funding the project with AUD $964 million.

The state-backed agency Export-Import Bank of Korea (KEXIM) has now delayed a decision on whether to invest in Santos’ South Korean joint venture partner, energy company SK E&S. The plaintiffs hope the agency will withdraw its support for the gas field entirely. This would put the financial viability of the entire project at risk.

Jikilaruwu Tiwi Island clan leaders Francisco Babui and Daniel Munkara were plaintiffs in the case. They say that they did not receive proper consultation on the deep-sea gas field. Moreover, they had been misled that it was going ahead at all. “Under Australian law and in accordance with Aboriginal tradition, the Jikilaruwu clan is the owner of the sea country where that gas pipeline will go through. We are the decision-makers for that sea country”, Munkara said in a statement.

The delay in the investment decision indicates that KEXIM views this project as significantly risky, climate finance researcher at Solutions for Our Climate (SFOC) Dongjae Oh told ANC news. Seoul-based SFOC forms part of the Stop Barossa Gas campaign, an international alliance that supported the plaintiffs along with Environment Centre NT, Jubilee Australia Research Centre, and Japan Center for a Sustainable Environment and Society.

Santos and SK E&S’ greenwashing initiative is exploiting marginalized communities overseas, said Dongjae Oh. The South Korean government must listen to the traditional owners and fully withdraw its support.

No consent for Barossa gas project

The Barossa project has been in development since 2004. However, Tiwi Islanders say they only recently learned about the project – just months before drilling is expected to commence.

In the injunction, the plaintiffs stated they had not given their free, prior and informed consent for the project. “Santos people have never come to the Tiwi Islands to speak to us face to face. By taking the South Korean Government to court to stop this gas project, we are protecting our family and our land. This gas project puts our way of life at risk”, said Babui.

The record of consultation submitted to NOPSEMA, Australia’s offshore petroleum regulator, reveals just two emails and one unanswered phone call to the Tiwi Land Council. There is no mention of any consultation with Larrakia traditional owners.

“Santos did not fully explain their plans to build a gas pipeline along our coast. Santos did not explain any of the risks. We were told briefly about the pipeline in 2018 [by previous owners ConocoPhillips] and we said ‘No’ to the project. They said it wasn’t happening. Now we find out they went behind our back. Santos wants to lay the pipeline through our sea country without our consent”, said Munkara.

A group of traditional owners from the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, have launched legal action against the South Korean government

Tiwi plaintiffs, Francisco Babui and Daniel Munkara. Credit: Rebecca Parker

“Devastating for us and our future”

The pipeline would connect the Barossa gas field to the Darwin LNG plant 500 kilometres away. It would run through Tiwi Sea country and into Darwin, Larrakia country. The expanse covers the protected Oceanic Shoals Marine Park and along the entire length of Bathurst Island.

The pipeline cuts a critical cultural site for the Dangalaba and Larrakia people. It would damage the pristine sea country and threaten local marine life for Tiwi Islanders. “The Barossa project is devastating for us and our future. It will have a big impact, especially for Aboriginal people”, said senior Larrakia traditional owner Kevin Lance Quall.

“We are strong people here on the Tiwi Islands and we’ve cared for this sea country for thousands of years. We don’t want to see it destroyed”, said Antonia Burke, Dardawunga Impajimawu, Tiwi Islands resident.

Barossa gas project is “an emissions factory with an LNG by-product”

Jason Fowler from Environment Centre NT and Stop Barossa Gas has significant concerns about the climate impacts of the project. “The Barossa project is expected to produce 15.6 million tons in annual greenhouse gas emissions”, said Mr Fowler. “At a time when the International Energy Agency has said that no new gas projects can go online if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, for public financial institutions to be funding this dirty fossil fuel project is reckless and irresponsible”.

report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that Barossa is on track to become the most-carbon intensive gas project in Australia. The CO2 content of Barossa gas is extremely high. As a result, two-thirds of the CO2 would have to be vented directly into the atmosphere before the gas is even piped into Darwin.

“When the venting and combustion emissions both off- and on-shore are calculated, the Barossa to Darwin LNG project looks more like a CO2 emissions factory with an LNG by-product”, said the report author and LNG industry expert John Robert.

Santos says it has plans to mitigate this impact via carbon capture and storage (CSS) and carbon offsets. The IEEFA questions the credibility of these claims. Either way, the Barossa gas project would remain one of the world’s most expensive and dirtiest gas projects.

A publicly-funded climate disaster

The Tiwi’s challenge comes amid a growing trend of climate litigation against public financing of fossil fuels. This is including the landmark victory by campaigners against the Korean utility KEPCO’s coal mine expansion in Australia.

Over the past decade, Australia has received over AUD $36 billion for its fossil fuel projects from international public financial institutions, including credit agencies. Most people are unaware that governments worldwide are using export credit agencies to quietly funnel taxpayer-backed subsidies to fossil fuel companies, according to Dina Hopstad Rui, a researcher at Jubilee Australia Research Centre. “Public finance is often the keystone of getting risky projects like Barossa over the line. Without it many would just fall over”, says Rui.

The Australian government and fossil fuel companies are also facing the courts over climate. A group of Torres Strait Islanders are suing the Australian government over its inaction on climate change. In addition, the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) has also filed a lawsuit against Santos, alleging the company’s statements about gas being “clean” and that its pathway to net-zero by 2040 was deceptive.