On 19 December last year, President John Dowsett from the national Native Title Tribunal (NTT) shamefully ruled in favour of gas giant Santos against Gomeroi native title applicants.
Dowsett’s decision permits NSW to grant four petroleum production leases to Santos. These leases would extend over sections of the Pilliga state forest, the traditional land of the Gomeroi people. Santos plans to drill up to 850 gas wells across 95,000 hectares south-west of Narrabri. This will require clearing up to 1000 hectares of forest.
Santos’ gas project enjoys support from both Labor and the Coalition at state and federal levels.
Gomeroi woman Suellyn Tighe, in a statement read in NSW Parliament in response to the ruling, said: “This government, and sadly many of you in opposition, whilst espousing your shiny green-washed credentials, are barrackers and enablers, paving the way for the ever increasing fossil fuel onslaught in NSW.”
Gomeroi are appealing the decision in the Federal Court and alongside climate groups have vowed to continue to fight Santos. A judge has not yet been appointed for the appeal hearing, which could take months to begin.
A Gomeroi native title claim lodged in 2012 covers the Pilliga state forest, meaning that Santos has been forced to seek agreement with Gomeroi. In March 2022, Gomeroi voted 162-2 to reject any such agreement.
While it mandates consultation, the native title system does not offer Indigenous people genuine control over their land. Santos lodged a “Future Acts Determination Application” with the NTT to over-ride Gomeroi rights and impose the project without compensation, arguing it would be in “the public interest” due to the revenue generated by gas mining.
Gomeroi argued in the tribunal that the Pilliga/Narrabri gas project would result in an irreversible and grave impact on culture, land and waters and would contribute to climate change.
Despite the tens of thousands of years of care and connection Gomeroi have to the Pilliga land and waters, Dowsett callously stated that this “assertion” was backed by no “specific evidence”.
In a sick example of the racism of the system, he supported Santos’ contention that gas mining would strengthen Gomeroi cultural connections to the Pilliga by employing Aboriginal people in site clearance and mining work.
Gomeroi also argued, in a native title case first, that the project could not be considered in “the public interest” because it would contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and result in “grave environmental harm”.
Climate scientist Will Steffen was called as a witness, citing the most recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report which makes it clear that there must be no new fossil fuel extraction projects if the world wants to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Dowsett was contemptuous of the idea that climate change impacts were relevant to the case. He approvingly quoted Santos’ witness Mr Dunn, who disagreed that emissions from the gas project would exacerbate climate change, “given that Santos would be offsetting emissions through other sources”.
The idea that companies can offset their emissions is a fantasy that is central to Labor’s new emissions trading scheme policy, the safeguard mechanism.
On 14 January, more than 300 people gathered in Coonabarabran to protest the NTT ruling. The rally was led by local Gomeroi activists and heard speakers from the Gomeroi community, The Greens, the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association and the Independent Education Union, who read out a statement of support from Unions NSW.
Suellyn Tighe highlighted the hypocrisy of the Albanese government, criticising environment minister Tanya Plibersek for claiming to have “a strong partnership with the First Nations people” on the same day that the determination was handed down.
Another Gomeroi woman, Paris Norton, called on the federal government to “do something that is right, move towards life” and finished by stating “you wanted a voice, you got it”.
A statement with three core demands was put to the rally calling on the federal government to “immediately declare the Gomeroi Native Title determination invalid”, to “cancel the licences for the Pilliga-Narrabri Gas Project” and “fix the draconian and biased Native Title legislation”.
Damien Davis-Frank and Matt Shields travelled from Sydney to speak on behalf of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Federation. Shields, a Gomeroi man and nurse, read a statement from the union reaffirming its support for the struggle against Santos.
The statement highlighted the destructive potential of the project in the context of climate change, “the biggest health challenge of the century”.
School Strike for Climate in Sydney will push demands against Santos as a key part of the school strike planned on 3 March. The climate and trade union movements need to escalate mobilisation against Santos in what will be a key battle for climate justice and First Nations rights in 2023.
By Jordi Pardoel and Angus Dermody