Santos Ltd faces a new delay in developing the Barossa gas project off northern Australia after a regulator ordered it to evaluate environmental risks to underwater indigenous cultural heritage before starting pipeline construction.
The Jan. 13 notice, published on Tuesday by Australia's offshore regulator, comes on top of a court order in December which requires Santos to consult indigenous people on the Tiwi Islands for the project's drilling environmental plan.
Pipeline construction for the $3.6 billion gas project had been due to begin at the end of January, with the company aiming to start producing gas in the first half of 2025.
A Santos spokesperson said she did not have a date for when the new assessment would be completed. The company has also said it is unclear when drilling might resume.
Underwater cultural heritage could, for example, include ancient stone tools, such as those that were found in waters off the Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia.
The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority made the order after inspecting Santos' offices on short notice on Dec. 21 and 22.
While Santos has committed to evaluating the impacts and risks of underwater work not previously identified in its environmental plan for the pipeline, the regulator decided to also issue a notice to the company.
The order does not prohibit the start of work on the pipeline installation, but a spokesperson for the regulator said it expects "Santos won't undertake any work that may result in impacts and risks that haven’t been adequately identified, evaluated and managed."
Santos must also update its environmental plan to reflect any risks and describe any measures it plans to take to reduce those risks "to as low as reasonably practicable and acceptable levels," the spokesperson said.
Santos said it is following the regulator's notice.
"The pipeline installation is a low-impact activity involving the laying of pipe on the sea floor. There are no dredging or trenching activities," the Santos spokesperson said.
The Environmental Defenders Office, which handled the Tiwi Islanders case against Santos last year, welcomed the regulatory action.
"We will continue to work closely with our Tiwi clients to ensure their rights are upheld and their cultural heritage, in all its forms, is preserved for current and future generations," Alina Leikin, special counsel for the non-profit legal center, said in emailed comments.
(Reuters - Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)