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Santos won't pursue legal costs against Traditional Owners as EDO remains in firing line

David Prestipino -

Santos has confirmed it will not seek to recuperate legal costs against three Traditional Owners from the Tiwi Islands after their failed legal challenge on cultural heritage grounds added $US300 million to the company's Barossa gas project expenditure forecast.

The Adelaide-based oil and gas producer confirmed discussions were ongoing regarding the Federal Court decision on January 29, which dismissed the case run by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO).

The conduct of EDO lawyers during proceedings was later criticised by the judge and the legal unit is now being threatened with critical funding cuts from state and territory leaders and the Federal Opposition as legal action on environmental grounds from its clients halt key resources projects across the country.

Santos chief executive, Kevin Gallagher, on Thursday kept the heat on the community legal centre, confirming the company was discussing the recuperation of legal costs the Federal Court ordered the trio of Traditional Owners the EDO represented to pay.

Elders from the Tiwi Islands argued construction of a pipeline at Santos' $4.7 billion Barossa project north of Darwin would threaten their cultural heritage but the judge dismissed the case on January 29, with court delays adding an estimated $US300 million to its budget.

"Some of the work programs have been delayed quite a bit, and some of the jobs and the staffing up have been delayed by up to a year in some areas," Mr Gallagher said when asked about the impact of the legal delays on Thursday.

While he confirmed Santos would not seek costs from the trio if Tiwi Island Elders, he did not rule out seeking recompense from the EDO, who the judge accused of confecting evidence and "subtle form of coaching" witnesses.

"That will become evident in time," Mr Gallagher told a press conference in Darwin, with Traditional Owners from the Tiwi Islands and Larrakia behind him.

"We're working through those processes just now with the court."

He said governments had to find a way for legal challenges on consultation grounds to continue while still allowing resource development, predicting a rise in environmental activism over mining and gas projects and backing a recent federal-led move for reform on consultation regulations for offshore gas projects.

"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," he said.

The Federal Court last month ruled the applicants pay Santos its legal costs before the judge's criticism of EDO lawyers during its case heaped scrutiny on the community legal unit, which specialises in environmental and climate law, with funding cut threats from state and territory leaders and Federal Opposition leader Petter Dutton adding pressure.

Mr Dutton recently pledged to defund the EDO, as other states threatened to cut funding, but the legal unit's CEO said in a statement on Thursday afternoon any cuts ultimately would only disadvantage Australians.

EDO chief executive, David Morris, said Mr Dutton's funding threat was disappointing given the agency's record as a long-standing and respected environmental legal across Australia.

"As an accredited community legal centre, our public interest environmental lawyers have served people and communities across Australia for nearly 40 years," he said in a statement.

"We provide a vital community service."

Federal funding of the EDO, which runs litigation aimed at protecting the environment and climate, was cut by former prime minister Tony Abbott in 2013 but reinstated by federal Labor when it came into power.

Today the office is mostly funded by charitable donations, supported by state and territory government grants, and $8.2 million of federal funding over four years.

NT Environment Minister, Kate Worden, confirmed the NT government was reviewing its funding of the EDO, with similar sentiment among political leaders in WA and Queensland, which are reliant on massive resources projects to drive their respective economies.

The scrutiny Mr Gallagher further cast over the EDO on Thursday came as the Santos boss confirmed the oil and gas producer confirmed it would establish a "future fund" to deliver at least $100 million to support Aboriginal communities over the lifetime of its Barossa gas project, expected to be 15-20 years after production begins late 2025.

Santos and Tiwi Islanders have discussed the Barossa Aboriginal Future Fund for months, with Mr Gallagher saying the investment would deliver more than $100 million to coastal Aboriginal communities and homelands in the NT, "on areas like education, infrastructure, jobs … and helping us to close that gap".

Santos and its joint venture partners also announced on Thursday a fund of $10m would be spent in NT Aboriginal communities and homelands over the next 18 months, including the Tiwi Islands.

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