Santos told to get the ‘frack out’ of NT Festival

An open letter to the Darwin Festival signed by 51 artists is calling for the festival to sever ties with sponsor Santos over fracking links.

As of yesterday, Australia’s northern most and only tropical arts festival has come under fire for its relationship with major sponsor, oil and gas producer Santos. The challenge was announced in the Alice Springs News by some of the signatories (including Lauren Mellor, NT Frack Free Alliance and Dayne Pratzsky, Star of Frackman: the Movie) stating that:

“…While Santos has in previous years sponsored Darwin Festival’s Opening Night event, we are concerned that this year Santos’s sponsorship of the festival grants its activities a social licence the company doesn’t deserve as it embarks on a new and contested fracking program across its shale gas tenements which put at risk tens of thousands of square kilometres of the Territory…”

Specifically the Open Letter (you can read the full letter here) cites Santos’ more recent plans to expand its exploration operations”…south of Alice Springs, endangering the town’s only water supply, and on pastoral stations and Aboriginal-owned land as close as 75km to Uluru…”. Santos has operated in this area in the Amadeus Basin since 1993, with the flagship Mereenie Gasfield (250kms west of Alice Springs) producing over 16 million barrels of oil to date. Since 2013 they have spent $100 million on appraising and developing oil and natural gas reserves in Central Australia.

Santos Tenement in Alice
The Amadeus Basin is considered one of the most promising conventional/unconventional gas reserves in Australia.

They are not, however, the only ones taking advantage of this land. The Amadeus Basin also plays host to Central Petroleum’s Dingo, Palm Valley and Surprise field operations, as well as Mosman Limited’s exploration activities which began in October last year.

So why is Santos the only one feeling the heat? Well it comes down to a public perception of unethical conduct, that affects their social licence to operate. On one hand Santos is supporting a celebration of local culture and the land, and on the other they are engaging in a “…risky and untested form of mining slated for some of our most environmentally and culturally sensitive regions across the NT…”.

One co-signatory, film maker Alex Kelly commented that the Festival’s “…sponsorship framework [should] reflect the values of the Territory and the people who live here and [are] caring for country…”. Additionally, the Darwin Festival has a strong sustainability policy and those in protest feel that the sponsorship framework should reflect this as well. The letter states this is a real conflict of interest – and flagrant hypocrisy.

Many resources companies invest heavily in arts and culture as a way to improve their reputation and public profile, but Santos has had a rough time of it. Whilst they won two Creative Partnership Awards in South Australia and Queensland in 2013, they also lost sponsorship contracts with the Woodford Folk Festival and the Bangarra  Dance Theatre Company (amongst others) over questionable environmental practices.

This situation is a great example of how some companies pay lip service to the issue of social risk. A social licence to operate is not just a buzzword to throw around meaninglessly; mismanagement can have real ramifications. If this issue snowballs it could lead to a boycott of the festival, withdrawal of other sponsors and participants and ultimately (potential) intense scrutiny and pressure on Santos’s mining operations around Australia.

As yet, the Festival has not thrown Santos under the bus, instead choosing to acknowledge the energy company’s ongoing support of local artists and culture. The letter has given Santos the right of reply, but so far no response has been forthcoming. With only a week until the start of the Festival, there is not much time for the Festival or Santos to respond or change direction. SustainingPeople will watch with interest at the public relations dogfight as it escalates over the next week.

The Darwin Festival is showcasing the work of Casey Chambers, Xavier Rudd, Clare Bowditch, SAFIA, The Drones, Abbe May, Remi and Jimbla. Darwin Festival 2015 begins Thursday 6th August includes outdoor performances, workshops, dance, theatre,, cabaret, comedy, film and visual arts. Find out more about the lineup at the Darwin Festival 2015 website.

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