Pilliga forest: Big victory for Gomeroi people

Unions NSW and the IEU welcome a legal victory won by the Gomeroi people who have been opposing Santos’s plan to drill 850 gas wells into Gomeroi land in the Pilliga region in north-west NSW.

On 6 March 2024, the Federal Court ruled that the Native Title Tribunal made a legal error by dismissing the expert evidence of the late climate scientist Professor Will Steffen. Chief Justice Debra Mortimer said that the tribunal should have considered public interest in the mitigation of climate change and its impact on Native Title when making its decision.

In late 2022, the tribunal made a decision to permit the project despite the objections of the local Gomeroi people. It found that the “public benefit” outweighed any environmental concerns. Climate change impacts were presented to the tribunal with the argument that if “public interest” was the test, then current and future impacts of climate change on local, regional, national, and international levels should be taken into account.

The fire-prone Pilliga Scrub is the largest remaining native forest west of the Great Dividing Range and sits above the Great Artesian Basin. The gas wells would clear 1000 hectares over a 95000-hectare area and emit over 100 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent gases over the 25-year lifespan of the project. The wells would also irreversibly damage the underground aquifers and disturb native wildlife.

The Gomeroi people see it as an obligation to protect Country. As local Gomeroi spokesperson Dorothy Tighe said, “We are trying to stop the mining companies desecrating our Mother Earth, which is Gunimaa in Gomeroi culture.”

The 10-year Pilliga battle is not over, but this decision sets an important legal precedent on the climate change impacts of fossil fuel projects and the intersection with native title rights. For those in civil society who recognise the urgent need for climate action, this is a huge step in the right direction.

David Whitcombe