Santos gas pipeline

WA Academic ‘Lied’ to Stop Santos Gas Pipeline: Judge

9 February 2024

2.7 MINS

Federal Court Justice Natalie Charlesworth has found that a West Australian academic, Associate Professor Mick O’Leary, lied to try to stop construction of a natural gas pipeline from the Barossa Gas Field to a processing plant near Darwin.

The pipeline is being constructed for Santos, the Australian gas producer. Up to this point, the $6 billion project has been blocked by legal action.

On January 15, the Federal Court ruled against a group of Tiwi Islanders who had taken the case to stop the natural gas pipeline being built because it passes through waters adjacent to the Tiwi Islands, where there may be sacred sites.

Justice Charlesworth found that Professor O’Leary lied to the Tiwi Islanders who took the case, and coached them with regard to their evidence to the hearing.

Alex Hillman from the group Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, a leading opponent to fossil-fuel projects, told The Australian on January 15 that the legal challenges had caused great harm to Santos and its investors.

“While today’s court ruling may clear the way for Santos to restart its Barossa project after 16 months of delay, it leaves a colossal haemorrhage of shareholder money in its wake.

“We estimate that Santos’ regulatory delays could have cost the Barossa project $800 million.”

In the court case, evidence was given by Tiwi Islanders both in favour of the construction of the pipeline and against it.

One of the expert witnesses who gave evidence to the Federal Court was Dr Mick O’Leary, an Associate Professor at the School of Earth Sciences and the University of Western Australia Oceans Institute. He holds a PhD in Marine Sciences from James Cook University in North Queensland.

Professor O’Leary has consulted on resource project assessments and conducts research with a focus on geomorphology and archaeology.

In her judgement handed down on January 15, Justice Charlesworth said Professor O’Leary “did lie to the Tiwi Islanders, and I find that he did so because he wanted his ‘cultural mapping’ exercise to be used in a way that would stop the pipeline. It is conduct far flung from proper scientific method, and falls short of an expert’s obligation to this Court.” (para 1153)

After discussing several further misstatements by Professor O’Leary, Justice Charlesworth said that her “concerns about Dr O’Leary’s independence and credibility are such that I would not accept his evidence as sufficient to establish any scientific proposition at all, even if his evidence had gone unchallenged and even if he possessed the appropriate skills, qualification and experience to express them.”

“My conclusions about Dr O’Leary’s lack of regard for the truth, lack of independence and lack of scientific rigour are sufficient to discount or dismiss all of his reports for all purposes.” (para 1198)

She added:

“My concerns about Dr O’Leary’s lack of independence are reinforced by the lack of scientific rigour attending his opinion that landforms on the seabed are, or are associated with, burial sites.” (para 1199)

These landforms are now under the sea, some distance from the Tiwi Islands, and have been underwater for thousands of years.

Justice Charlesworth also expressed concern about the objectivity of Gareth Lewis, an anthropologist who gave evidence against Santos.

Justice Charlesworth said:

“It is concerning that Dr O’Leary expressed his opinion about the existence of burial grounds in the vicinity of the pipeline with such certainty given the significant limitations in his data.

“It is equally concerning that Mr Lewis expressed such strong opinions about the existence of burial grounds in the vicinity of the pipeline in such strident and unqualified terms, taking the asserted location of Marie Munkara at face value without any apparent anthropological scrutiny.” (para 1210) (Marie Munkara is an Indigenous novelist.)

Professor O’Leary is no stranger to controversy. The Australian reported that University of Western Australia researchers wrote an academic paper challenging claims made by Professor O’Leary about Indigenous rock art on WA’s Burrup Peninsula, where a natural gas processing facility is being built. It was published in the journal Geoarchaeology.

Environmentalists have tried to stop the Burrup Peninsula plant from proceeding.

The University of WA took the extraordinary step of requiring the publisher of the article to retract it. Despite this, the academics who criticised Professor O’Leary’s work have stood by their paper.


Originally published in News Weekly.

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One Comment

  1. Leonie Robson 9 February 2024 at 9:14 am - Reply

    How do Santos shareholders ever see reimbursement?
    Activist continue to undermine every section of academia and pose great threats to Australia’s best interests.
    These Professors should never hold positions of power or influence ever again.

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