Gas giant Santos has triumphed over a group of Tiwi Islands elders in a federal court challenge.

The decision handed down this week clears the way for the continuation of Santos’ $5.7 billion Barossa gas project in the Timor Sea, granting permission to resume laying an underwater pipeline crucial to the project, located north of Darwin.

The legal battle centred around the concerns of the Tiwi Islands elders, represented by the Environmental Defenders Office, regarding the potential impact of Santos' 263-kilometre pipeline on underwater cultural heritage sites and sacred dreaming places near the Tiwi Islands. 

The elders sought a revision of Santos' environment management plan to encompass these potential risks.

Justice Natalie Charlesworth, presiding over the case, pointed to significant disagreements among the Tiwi Islanders regarding the cultural significance of the area affected by the pipeline. 

“The case founded on the traditional accounts of the Ampiji and the Crocodile Man was characterised by a significant degree of divergence among relevant Tiwi Islanders about the content of those Dreaming or songlines,” she stated.  

Furthermore, she expressed dissatisfaction with the claims of potential damage to cultural heritage sites along the seafloor, finding a “negligible chance” of impacting archaeological objects.

The plaintiffs, led by Jikilaruwu traditional owner Simon Munkara, expressed profound disappointment with the ruling.

Conversely, Santos welcomed the decision, affirming its commitment to adhere to the environmental plan in force for the activity. 

The ruling has broader implications for the Australian energy sector, with industry representatives like Australian Energy Producers calling for an overhaul of the offshore environmental regulatory system. 

She emphasised the need for clear, workable rules that balance community consultation with industry requirements.

Concurrently, the decision is seen as setting a precedent against what is perceived as ‘lawfare’ by environmental activists. It signals a more stringent standard for evidence in cultural heritage disputes, potentially affecting future legal challenges against energy projects.