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Woodside faces Indigenous legal challenge to seismic blasting at WA gas site

A traditional owner has filed a legal challenge to the approval of seismic blasting for Woodside’s Scarborough offshore gas project in Western Australia.

Mardudhunera woman Raelene Cooper is seeking a judicial review of the offshore petroleum regulator Nopsema’s decision to grant the approval despite concerns consultation with traditional owners had been inadequate.

The case is the first challenge to a new offshore petroleum approval since Tiwi people secured a landmark victory in the federal court last year that overturned the drilling approval for Santos’s Barossa gas project off the Northern Territory.

Gas giant Woodside plans to develop the Scarborough gasfield for the export of liquefied natural gas. Estimates for the amount of greenhouse gas emissions the project will produce over its lifetime range from 880m to 1.6bn tonnes.

Environment groups including Greenpeace have also raised concerns about dredging near sensitive turtle habitat and the effects of seismic blasting on endangered whales.

Cooper said she was worried about the effect seismic blasting would have on sea country but had not had the opportunity to explain this properly to Woodside.

“The activities happening in our sea country are affecting places of cultural significance and disrupting our songlines,” she alleged. “The whales are showing us all around the world that they are in trouble, and if they are in trouble then so is our very existence.

“Woodside are not above the law and they’re not above our cultural lore.”

The Environmental Defenders Office, which is representing Cooper, said Cooper would allege Woodside had failed to adequately consult its client about seismic blasting and had not taken the time to “gather all the relevant information about our client’s sea country and interests”.

Nopsema approved the seismic blasting last month but attached a condition that Woodside needed to carry out further consultation before any testing commenced.

The EDO will argue the regulator should not have granted the approval before the criteria for consultation were met and, alternatively, that seismic testing cannot commence before Woodside has consulted Cooper.

“Nopsema approved this blasting on July 31, but said more consultation needed to be done, because what Woodside has done so far didn’t meet Nopsema’s requirements,” EDO special counsel Clare Lakewood said.

“Last week, less than a fortnight later, Woodside said they were ready to start seismic blasting.” Lakewood alleged that they could not have done “meaningful, respectful and thorough consultation” in that short time.

A spokesperson for Woodside said it would “vigorously defend its ability to deliver on planned and approved activities”.

The company’s environment plan sets out consultation the company conducted with organisations that Cooper was a member of, including Save Our Songlines and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.

The spokesperson said Nopsema’s acceptance of the plan was important in the context of last year’s judgment in the Tiwi case “which resulted in a significant review and amendment to the way the Australian offshore energy industry is required to consult the community on environment plans”.

Woodside has dedicated significant time and effort to ensure its approach to consultation has met case law requirements,” the spokesperson said.

Earlier this week, Greenpeace released images of dredging for a pipeline for the project in the Dampier archipelago, off the Pilbara coast, which the environment group alleged was occurring near turtle breeding habitat.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific senior campaigner Sophie McNeill alleged the area affected by planned seismic blasting was habitat for endangered pygmy blue whales and close to a whale migration super highway.

“Seismic blasting is one of the loudest sounds in the ocean. Imagine huge sonic cannon firing underwater every five seconds, all day long,” she said.

“Seismic blasting can deafen whales, who depend on their hearing to communicate and find food. A deaf whale is a dead whale.”

Woodside’s spokesperson said a range of measures were in place to avoid or minimise the potential for dredging activities to affect marina fauna, including the “use of marine fauna observers and turtle deflection devices”.

They said environmental management controls for the project included locating the pipeline “within or adjacent to pre-disturbed areas to avoid sensitive marine habitats”, a monitoring and management program to prevent coral loss and monitoring and management measures for fauna such as turtles and whales.

They said the seismic testing area was 400km offshore and 9,000 metres deep and outside whale migratory routes.

A spokesperson for Nopsema said the regulator did not comment on legal proceedings.

They said Australia’s petroleum regulations permitted Nopsema to approve an environmental plan subject to limitations or conditions in circumstances “where Nopsema is not reasonably satisfied that an environment plan meets the acceptance criteria”.


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