A group of traditional owners in Australia has begun legal action seeking an injunction to prevent South Korea’s export credit agency and export-import bank from supporting a giant gas project.

Representatives of the Tiwi Islander and Larrakia indigenous peoples in northern Australia say they weren’t properly consulted by the developer of the Barossa gas project, Adelaide-based energy company Santos, and have not given consent for a 300km-long pipeline from the gas field to the city of Darwin.

They are seeking a court order preventing the institutions from lending A$964mn (US$725mn). The claim is being made through a provision in South Korea’s Civil Execution Act, arguing the project will cause “irreparable damage to their rights, such as their rights to traditional ownership and a healthy environment”, according to Jinny Kim from South Korean NGO Solutions for Our Climate, which is supporting the claim.

The request for an injunction was filed on March 22 and a hearing is expected soon.

“Under Australian law and in accordance with Aboriginal tradition, the Jikilaruwu clan is the owner of the sea country where that gas pipeline will go through,” Daniel Munkara, a senior Tiwi traditional owner and member of the Jikilaruwu clan says in a statement provided by Australian NGO Jubilee. “We are the decision makers for that sea country.”

“Santos did not fully explain their plans to build a gas pipeline along our coast. Santos did not explain any of the risks. We were told briefly about the pipeline in 2018 [by previous owners ConocoPhillips] and we said ‘no’ to the project. They said it wasn’t happening. Now we find out they went behind our back. Santos wants to lay the pipeline through our sea country without our consent.”

“By taking the South Korean government to court to stop this gas project, we are protecting our family and our land. This gas project puts our way of life at risk.”

South Korean energy company SK E&S has a 37.5% stake in the project. Most of the gas produced at the field is set for export to Japan and South Korea.

Neither Kexim or K-Sure have announced final decisions on lending to or insuring the project. A representative of K-Sure did not respond to a request for comment but a spokesperson told Reuters the agency “supports projects only in line with international environmental standards”. Kexim could not be reached for comment.

A similar case was launched in South Korea in 2019 by three Indonesian citizens seeking a court order to prevent Kexim, K-Sure and the Korea Development Bank from supporting the construction of coal-fired power plants on the island of Java. It was rejected by the court the following year because the project was in early stages of development and no financing decisions had been made, according to reports from the time.

The Barossa field sits off the north coast of the Tiwi Islands, a sparsely populated territory about 85km north of Darwin.

The plaintiffs say the pipeline may harm sea life, hunting grounds and cultural sites. “The Barossa project is devastating for us and our future,” says Lance Quall, a senior Larrakia traditional owner, in a statement. “It will have a big impact, especially for Aboriginal people.”

Barossa’s gas deposits are estimated to have a 16-20% carbon dioxide component, which the plan’s environmental impact assessment concedes is much higher than other LNG projects in Australia. The development will discharge an average of 3.38 million metric tonnes (mmt) of carbon dioxide per year, according to the assessment.

Santos has since said the emissions will be lower than those projected in the assessment. The company says Barossa is the biggest investment in Australia’s gas industry since 2012 and comes as buyers in Europe and elsewhere hunt for gas supplies as they scramble to reduce reliance on imports of the commodity from Russia.

SK E&S, which says it will export 1.3mmt of LNG from the facility annually after production commences, will use carbon capture and storage to remove the plant’s direct carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere. “In doing so, it will eventually become a ‘CO2-free LNG’ business,” the company claimed last year.

Solutions for our Climate reportedly launched separate legal action against SK E&S over those claims, pointing out they apply only to emissions generated during the production process and not these released when the fuel is used.

Santos said in an update to the Australian Securities Exchange in February that the Barossa project is proceeding on budget, on time and is around 25% completed.

The Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), a state lender, said in December last year it will lend US$346mnto help Japanese energy provider Jera finance the acquisition of a 12.5% stake in the Barossa project, ignoring calls from campaigners to avoid the development.

In a statement, a Santos spokesperson says the project “has all the necessary approvals in place … as is the case for all of our projects, we undertake consultation with all key stakeholders where they receive detailed information about the project”.

Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal when burned to create energy, according to the US Energy Information Administration, but still creates about 53kg of the greenhouse gas per unit of energy output.

Proponents of natural gas say it should be used as a stable transition fuel as the world attempts to move away from coal and oil to cleaner energy sources, a position bolstered by the EU’s decision last month to allow investments in gas to be considered green – in some circumstances – under its updated sustainable finance taxonomy.

Pointing to the tumbling cost of renewable energy, climate campaigners argue it is faster and more effective to invest in green energy instead of new gas projects. Last year the International Energy Agency said that to reach global net-zero emissions by 2050, no more gas energy projects should be built.

Public financial institutions, mainly in China, Japan and South Korea, pumped A$36.7bn into fossil fuel projects in Australia between 2010 and 2020, according to a 2021 report by Australian environmental campaigners.