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$100 million 'future fund' planned for Indigenous communities

David Prestipino -

Santos has pledged to establish a future fund to support Aboriginal communities once commercial production begins at its $US4.7 billion Barossa gas project in the Northern Territory.

Chief executive Kevin Gallagher said on Thursday he expected the fund, which had yet to be structured, would deliver more than $100 million to coastal Aboriginal communities and homelands in the NT, such as those on the Tiwi Islands and East Arnhem Land, for the duration of the project, which is expected to begin in September 2025 for the next 15-20 years.

Mr Gallasher said Santos had been in discussions with Tiwi Islanders over the Barossa Aboriginal Future Fund for months, with the investment to focus "on areas like education, infrastructure, jobs … and helping us to close that gap".

The structure and disbursement of the fund has yet to be settled with Indigenous communities, which include East Arnhem, West Arnhem, Darwin-Daly-Wagait and Victoria River District regions, as well as the Tiwi Islands.

Mr Gallagher said projects such as Barossa and the revamp of the Darwin LNG plant would help support local Aboriginal communities.

"The Barossa gas and DLNG life extension projects are already training and employing Aboriginal Territorians, and we plan to do much more," he said.

"Sharing the benefits of projects like Barossa is a meaningful step we can take towards closing the gap."

Mr Gallagher said the intention was to build a long-term relationship with the Tiwi community, with Santos and its joint venture partners also announcing on Thursday a second fund of $10 million would be spent in NT Aboriginal communities and homelands over the next 18 months, including the Tiwi Islands, where three Traditional Owners last month unsuccessfully brought legal action to block a gas pipeline for the Barossa project due to cultural heritage concerns.

Delays due to the Federal Court legal proceedings by the trio of Elders proved costly for Santos, which last week predicted could raise the Barossa project's budget by as much as $US300m.

But Mr Gallagher on Thursday also said the Adelaide-based company would not pursue legal costs against the trio, despite the Federal Court ordering them to.

The applicant's lawyers, the Environmental Defenders' Office, have since been criticised after the judge accused them of confecting evidence and a "subtle form of coaching" witnesses.

Federal Resources Minister Madeleine King then signalled reform of regulations regarding consultation for offshore gas projects was imminent, following similar costly delays to Woodside's massive Scarborough gas project in WA's north after legal challenges from Traditional Owners, also represented by the EDO, over adequate environmental consultation with the world's biggest gas producer.

Speaking at a press conference with Indigenous representatives from the Tiwi Islands and the Larrakia traditional owners of the Darwin region, Mr Gallagher said governments had to find balance around reasonable legal challenges over project consultation, while still progressing resource development.

"Activism is certainly not over. I suspect that is the way of the world going forward," he said.

"It's no secret that I don't think the balance is right [in Australia], given that we were delayed for a year or so after we had project approval."

NT Environment Minister Kate Worden said the funding commitment from Santos showed how the resources industry could help strengthen Indigenous communities and foster career paths for FIrst Nations people.

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