The Federal Court has invalidated Woodside Energy’s approval to conduct seismic blasting for its Scarborough Gas Project after a legal challenge by a Traditional Custodian. 

Mardudhunera woman Raelene Cooper filed a judicial review in August, arguing the offshore regulator NOPSEMA made a legal error in approving the blasting and that Woodside had not met a condition of the approval that she be properly consulted. 

The project, part of Woodside’s mega-polluting Burrup Hub, is offshore of the Burrup Penninsula in north-west Western Australia, known as Murujuga, which is currently nominated for UNESCO World Heritage listing, as it contains the largest collection of Aboriginal rock art in the world. 

Ms Cooper is deeply concerned about the seismic activity’s impact on her Songlines, including on whales and turtles, which are of high cultural importance. 

On September 14th Justice Colvin granted an urgent interlocutory injunction preventing Woodside from commencing blasting until the 28th of September, after Woodside gave 48 hours’ notice it was going ahead despite the unresolved legal challenge. 

Represented by the Environmental Defenders Office, Ms Cooper returned to the Federal Court in Perth on Tuesday for an expedited hearing on the first ground of her case – that NOPSEMA had made a legal error in accepting Woodside’s plan when it was not satisfied it had met stakeholder consultation requirements – as well as an issue of legal standing around the second ground of the judicial review. 

Today, Justice Colvin decided that NOPSEMA’s decision to approve the plan was invalid and should be set aside.  

This means Woodside no longer has an approval to conduct the seismic blasting. 

Following today’s decision, Raelene Cooper said: 

“I’m so elated. I want my mob back home to be empowered by this day today. This is bigger than me it’s about my people and our history. We’ve been forgotten and treated so badly. I want the old people to remember we are warriors. I’m a warrior and my family are warriors.   

“Woodside just came and told us what was happening. They never  bothered to sit down and listen to Murujuga traditional custodians about the full impacts of their Burrup Hub operations on our culture and our sacred Songlines.  All I am thinking about is my mum, my family and my people. I’m here on behalf of all of them. They should have no fear.

“No one is more relevant to consult about the threat posed by Woodside’s Burrup Hub than Traditional Custodians of Murujuga with cultural, spiritual and family connections to our sacred ngurra. We know what it takes to protect our Country and keep it safe for all of us – plants, animals and humans. When you’re messing with mother Earth you’re talking about all humanity, our very existence.” 

EDO Managing Lawyer Brendan Dobbie said: 

“This is a fantastic outcome for our client, and the whole community, that has affirmed the need for proper consultation to take place before approvals are granted in offshore developments. 

“NOPSEMA should never have accepted Woodside Energy’s Environment Plan, knowing these requirements had not yet been met. 

“The court previously heard about the serious harm that seismic testing would inflict on Ms Cooper’s Songlines and culture.  This is a significant burden for a Traditional Custodian who has a duty to protect these Songlines for future generations. 

“Ms Cooper is entitled to be heard and have her interests represented before any decision on the seismic blasting is taken.” 


The project 

Woodside wants to conduct seismic blasting for its Scarborough Gas Project – a for-export LNG proposal off Murujuga/the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia, which will result in the release of an estimated 878.02 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. 

The proposed Scarborough Gas Project is part of the Burrup Hub, involving the development of the new Scarborough and Browse Basin gas fields – which alone have an estimated combined emission of 2.95 billion tonnes of CO2.1 The Burrup Hub also includes the Pluto Project processing plant and other linked liquified natural gas (LNG) and fertiliser plants on the Burrup Peninsula. 

This area of north-west Pilbara is a deeply sacred place that contains the largest and most dense collection of Aboriginal rock art in the world, totalling more than one million images.  This priceless cultural treasure is currently nominated for UNESCO world heritage listing 2, but researchers believe the sacred Songlines and stories contained in these carvings are being damaged by emissions from the Burrup Hub.3 

Seismic testing 

Seismic testing involves blasting compressed air from a specially adapted ship. The noise from the blasts causes sound waves to bounce off the seabed back to sensors carried by the ship. It’s done to map fossil fuel reserves as a precursor to drilling. 

The impact of seismic blasting on marine animals such as whales can include damage to the sensors that they use to hear, ability to communicate through their electro-frequencies, stress, displacement from habitat, physical injuries and death. 

NOPSEMA approvals 

In September 2022, EDO client Dennis Tipakalippa successfully challenged approvals granted by NOPSEMA to gas company Santos for drilling its Barossa Gas Project, north of the Tiwi Islands. During the hearing Mr Tipakalippa and other Tiwi Traditional Owners demonstrated their deep cultural connection to the Sea Country, including through On-Country evidence. 

The court agreed with Mr Tipakalippa and the Munupi clan that they had not been properly consulted on the project as stakeholders, as required by law, and overturned the approval. The decision was upheld on appeal by the Full bench of the Federal Court in November.