Posted 30 August 2015
Event sponsorship offered to two well-known Northern Territory arts and cultural festivals by an oil and gas company is under scrutiny from ‘fracking’ opponents.
Santos, an energy giant with mining interests in central Australia, the Amadeus Basin and the McArthur Basin, this year offered sponsorship to Alice Springs’ Beanie Festival and the annual Darwin Festival.
The Beanie Festival, an iconic community event held in June that celebrates woollen hats, was offered $10,000 in sponsorship by the company for the first time this year.
But the event’s committee knocked the money back due to concerns about associations with onshore hydraulic fracturing — or ‘fracking’ as it is more commonly known — in the Territory.
Fracking involves pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture rock layers deep within the earth to extract natural gas.
The NT Government released a report into hydraulic fracturing in the Territory earlier this year and found “no justification whatsoever” for a moratorium on the mining practice.
But the practice has been criticised by community and pastoral groups, who say it can contaminate and damage water supplies and destroy viable farm land.
Santos and many other energy giants currently hold onshore exploration licenses across large swathes of the Territory, including Aboriginal freehold land and national parks, that are rich in shale gas deposits.
These exploration licenses grant companies the right to frack for testing purposes, with NT Department of Mines and Energy approval.
Jo Nixon, executive officer at the Beanie Festival, said the Santos funding offer had divided the event’s committee into two camps: fracking opponents and those keen to accept seldom-offered corporate sponsorship.
“The offer was put on the table very late in the day and there was an immediate reaction from all of the committee members. It was a very split reaction,” Ms Nixon told ABC Local Radio.
“We decided we really needed to discuss it more, and the lead up to the festival was too busy to think about those things.”
Ms Nixon said the committee was still willing to consider the company’s sponsorship offer in 2016 and had met with its representatives to discuss the issue further.
Calls to drop opening night sponsorship of Darwin Festival
The Darwin Festival is one of the Territory’s best-known and largest cultural events and has been sponsored by Santos since 1996.
It is a really critical time to have this conversation out loud and look at what we’re giving up when we allow these companies to brand our events.Alex Kelly, local filmmaker and co-ordinator of NT Frack Free Alliance
In the Territory, Santos and other mining companies have been fracking for natural gas via vertical wells for more than 30 years, but the industry is now gearing up to also frack for shale gas via horizontal wells.
Alex Kelly, a Territory filmmaker and member of the NT Frack Free Alliance, told ABC Local Radioit is time for local artists to take a stand against fracking.
“It is a really critical time to have this conversation out loud and look at what we’re giving up when we allow these companies to brand our events,” Ms Kelly said.
Ms Kelly and a group of artists this month sent an open letter to the Darwin Festival calling on it to reconsider its long-running Santos partnership.
“We’re calling on Darwin Festival to take leadership to support the smaller festivals across the Northern Territory who are likely to come under the same sorts of pressure,” she said.
Matthew Doman, Santos’ manager of public affairs, said the company was committed to environmentally sustainable fracking processes and had no intentions of pressuring artistic communities into accepting sponsorship.
“We don’t regard our activities as controversial but we do know the community has questions … particularly in the current climate as we seek to expand our activities in the Northern Territory,” he said.
“A vocal minority asserting a view wouldn’t distract us or the many supporters of the Darwin Festival.”
In a written statement to the ABC, the Darwin Festival’s general manager Mark Crees said he would not comment on sponsors’ operations but that the event’s organisers were grateful for all sponsorship.
“[The festival] welcomes comment and debate from all parts of the community,” the statement read.
Event organisers: accepting sponsorship a fraught balancing act
The concerns over Territory corporate sponsorship follow last year’s high profile case of Sydney’s Biennale cutting ties with long-term partner Transfield due to its links to the offshore processing of asylum seekers.
The Beanie Festival’s Ms Nixon said accepting corporate sponsorship was often a fraught balancing act, especially when arts funding was sparse.
“It’s very hard in Alice Springs to get any corporate sponsors [and] with Northern Territory Government cuts this year, it’s a very big problem for us to weigh up,” she said.
“It would be awful to have a protest at the Beanie Festival of anti-fracking protesters. There was an anti-fracking table at the festival this year.
“We [didn’t] want to cause any problems for Santos [or accept funding] if the community doesn’t support it.”
Ms Kelly said the NT Frack Free Alliance had no current intentions of staging a boycott or protest at the Darwin Festival, which is set to kick off in early August.
She said it was unrealistic to expect the festival to drop its premier sponsor so close to opening night, but that the group hoped highlighting the issue now would lead to the end of the partnership next year.
“As artists, we know what a squeeze arts festivals get put under from funding. We in no way want to put the festival under more pressure,” she said.
“We’re just saying: let’s look for healthier and more sustainable sources of funding for the Territory.”
Ms Kelly said the NT Frack Free Alliance has received $15,000 in pledges from renewable energy companies willing to support the festival next year.
“I think there’s a fair chance we could find alternative funding for the festival,” she said.