Mardudhunera traditional custodian Raelene Cooper is challenging Woodside's seismic blasting plan. (Dean Lewins/AAP PHOTOS)
A Federal Court judge is expected to decide this week on a traditional owner’s challenge to Woodside Energy’s plan to begin seismic blasting off northern Western Australia as part of its Scarborough Gas Project.
Traditional custodian Raelene Cooper filed for a judicial review in August of the regulator’s decision to approve Woodside’s blasting plan, arguing the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) made a legal error.
Alternatively, Ms Cooper argues Woodside did not meet a condition of NOPSEMA’s approval – that she be properly consulted.
On September 14 Justice Craig Colvin granted an urgent interlocutory injunction preventing Woodside from starting blasting until September 28.
Despite finding that Woodside’s legally required consultation with First Nations stakeholders was inadequate, NOPSEMA gave approval for the seismic blasting on July 31, attaching a condition that further consultation needed to be carried out before blasting began.
Ms Cooper argues NOPSEMA cannot grant approval until she has been properly consulted, or alternatively, Woodside cannot begin seismic testing until the company has consulted with her, as required under NOPSEMA’s conditions.
Seismic testing involves ships towing special airguns that blast compressed air, creating pulses of sound.
This sound energy is directed at the sea floor and penetrates underlying rock layers, with the sound patterns recorded used to build a picture of geological layers, and oil and gas reserves, beneath the seabed.
According to the Environmental Defender’s Office, which is representing Ms Cooper, the impacts of seismic blasting on marine animals such as whales can include damage to their hearing and their ability to communicate, stress, displacement from habitat, physical injuries and death.
Woodside’s lawyer Brahma Dharmananda argued in a Federal Court hearing in Perth on Tuesday that Ms Cooper does not have standing to obtain orders to restrain an alleged offence under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Environment) Regulations 2009.
Woodside also says the ongoing delay to starting its seismic survey is causing significant costs.
NOPSEMA’s barrister Nicholas Wood said the regulator was completely within its rights to accept Woodside’s environmental plan, with conditions including further consultation.
But Justice Colvin suggested there may be a distinction between initial and ongoing consultation.
“How will the regulator know whether it’s a suitable mechanism for dealing with the environmental risk if it doesn’t know, and does not have reported to it, the outcome of the consultations as to the environmental matters that need to be addressed?” he said.
The massive Scarborough field is located about 375km off WA’s northwest coast.
The gas project will be connected to new offshore facilities by a 430km pipeline to the onshore Pluto liquid natural gas facility, near Karratha.
The project’s development phase will include the installation of a floating production unit with eight wells drilled initially, and 13 wells across the life of the gas field.
Woodside expects to process about five to eight million tonnes of gas per year.
Justice Colvin reserved his decision until Thursday morning, noting that the injunction against seismic blasting continued until the end of that day.