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Traditional owners did not need to be consulted on a massive gas project off the Tiwi Islands because they were not people with relevant interests, one gas company argued.
Santos is appealing a landmark Federal Court decision, in which Judge Mordecai Bromberg ruled that the offshore gas regulator should not have approved environmental plans for drilling in the Barossa gas field, 265 km to the north -west of Darwin.
Judge Bromberg in September ordered the cancellation of the regulator’s approval and a halt to drilling.
Santos launched his appeal in the Federal Court in Melbourne on Tuesday, arguing that the ruling judge failed to properly consider what constituted a “relevant person” who needed to be consulted.
Santos attorney Christopher Horan KC told the court that under the regulations, a relevant person was someone whose “duties, interests or activities” could be affected by the drilling.
Mr Horan said that while the traditional owners’ connection to the Sea Country was “genuine and real”, it did not constitute the type of legal “interest” detailed in the legislation.
A community also did not exist as a legal entity, so Santos would have to identify individual people, Horan said.
Identifying and consulting every person would be impractical for Santos and difficult for the regulator to ensure everyone was consulted, the attorney said.
As the hearing broke for lunch, the traditional owners of the Tiwi Islands and their supporters gathered outside the Federal Court in Melbourne.
They called for a halt to the gas project, noting that they would continue to fight regardless of the outcome of Santos’ appeal.
“We still live off our land,” Antonia Burke told the rally.
“We are the cultural giants and we will not be intimidated or ignored by the federal government or by these mining companies.”
Federal Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe was also present at the rally, telling the crowd they should fight instead of letting the gas projects go ahead.
“Sea Country has song lines, and so does Country,” she said.
“It’s important for all of us. When it’s good, we go.”
The appeal hearing before Federal Court Justices Susan Kenny, Debra Mortimer and Michael Lee continues.