By the time Foreign Minister Penny Wong was confronted by CNN over Australia’s shoddy action on climate at a UN Summit last week, the gas lobby had finally capitulated and released its financial statements. Callum Foote reports on the powerful yet elusive fossil fuel lobby.
It’s a shame
It was moderately embarrassing for the Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong to be press-ganged by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour as she headed into United Nations headquarters in New York earlier this month, confronted with questions as to Australia’s poor track record on climate action.
Despite Australia being the world’s third largest exporter of fossil fuels, and still approving new coal and gas projects hand over fist, there has been little press here about the summit. Indeed, a letter from 220 world scientists – including Michael Mann, Peter Kalmus, Bill Hare, Cathy Whitlock, David Ho, Joelle Gergis, Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Dr. Farhana Sultana, Bill McKibben, Sunita Narain, Richard (Rick) Heede – expressing grave concern about our fossil expansion got almost no airplay, despite making headlines in the South China Morning Post and the UK’s Daily Mail.
The scientists called on the Australian Government to “accelerate climate action, not climate annihilation”. It did, to be fair, get a robust run in the ABC with the story: “Australia shamed on climate change in full-page New York Times advert”.
So it is that Australia was denied a speaking spot in the keynote session of the Climate Ambition Summit – a session reserved only for countries that could demonstrate leadership and credible action in response to the climate crisis.
As The Australia Institute’s climate and energy director Polly Hemming pointed out, “Back in Australia the Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, was in federal court last week defending the government’s right not to consider the climate impact of fossil fuels when approving new projects.
Follow the money
A good deal of the blame for Australia’s stubborn refusal to stop, even curb, new fossil fuel projects can be sheeted home to powerful lobbying by the oil and gas lobby APPEA. While tenacious in their pursuit of politicians and policymakers, APPEA has been remarkably shy in dealing with journalists who they can’t control. Even to the point of breaking the law by failing to provide public financial statements.
After months of pestering the oil and gas peak body for its ‘public’ financial reports, MWM can reveal what the gas lobby has been up to the last couple of years.
Why is it a good thing that the federal government released 47,000 sq/k of oil and gas exploration areas just three months after assuming office? Why is it a good thing that the Queensland government has agreed to put its taxpayers on the hook for rehabilitation of fracking land once the foreign corporations have drained the gas?
These are a couple of the “Achievements” listed by APPEA, the oil and gas lobby representing major foreign fossil fuel exporters, as detailed in their 2021-2022 financial report.
It is little wonder that APPEA (Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association), has been hiding its annual financial statements from the public. They are embarrassing for the governments who are the targets of their lobbying.
It is also little wonder that APPEA rebranded earlier this month, stripping the word ‘Petroleum’ from its title to become Australian Energy Producers (AEP).
Greenwashing and ‘Ozwashing’ to the enth degree, the AEP membership and board show that this organisation is really is a front for foreign energy giants, not ‘Australian’. Even the three key Australian producers are majority foreign owned: Santos, Origin Energy and Woodside that is.
Is AEP bothered whether Labor or Coalition governments are in power? In the words of CEO Samantha McCulloch, “The APPEA team worked tirelessly in the lead up to the Federal Election to ensure bipartisan support for our sector”. Indeed their even handed generosity to both major parties, and that of their corporate members, indicates the answer is no.
While Labor has been far more progressive vis-a-vis the expansion of renewable energy, than the Coalition during its 9 years in power, their policies on the expansion of the gas industry, approving new projects, the commitment to fracking in the Northern Territory and elsewhere, makes them just as committed to gas expansion as the Coalition.
Business as usual
AEP directors are a who’s who of oil and gas executives:
They include Frank Calabria, CEO of Origin Energy, Kate Callaghan, former Kevin Rudd advisor and general manager of corporate affairs at Chevron Australia, Khoa Dao, President of ConocoPhillips Australia, Kevin Gallagher, CEO of Santos, Dylan Pugh, Chairman of ExxonMobil Australia and Meg O’Neill CEO of Woodside Energy among others.
Despite the power the lobby group wields over both sides of politics, the public has not been allowed a look inside the organisation since 2020.
APPEA’s financial statements, the lobby group’s singular most basic duty of disclosure, have been publicly unavailable for the past couple of years. They used to publish them on their website, yet until a month ago they could not be found even with an ASIC search.
This was because in November 2020 APPEA informed the corporate regulator ASIC that it was now a small company and not obligated to lodge financial reports.
Under the Corporations Act, which even applies to foreign multinationals operating in Australia, a “Company limited by guarantee with annual (or consolidated) revenue of $1 million or more” is required to “prepare a financial report”.
Following pressure from MWM however – including revealing that APPEA was in breach of the Corporations Act by not filing public accounts – the financial statements have finally been lodge with the regulator ASIC. They show revenue hovering around $14 million a year for the past two years.
That is a lot of financial muscle – on top of the lobbying of the gas players themselves – spent on courting politicians every year.
APPEA CEO Samantha McCulloch, who joined the lobby group in 2022 after running the International Energy Agency’s carbon capture unit since 2018, detailed the lobby group’s successes in her Directors Report.
According to McCulloch, “We already have more than $20 billion of new investments in supply announced nationally in the past two years and there is more to come if there is policy stability and investment certainty”.
Additionally, the industry expects the record $70 billion in LNG exports from 2021-22 to climb to another windfall revenue record of $90 billion in the 2022-23 financial year. This has grown from $30 billion in the 2020-21 financial year.
Regarding the lobby group’s greener aspirations, McCulloch believes that “Raising awareness of our industry’s commitment to emissions reduction will only further grow the strong public support for the role of natural gas, capturing community support and building trust and ensuring our social licence to operate.”
This, despite uniform calls from the UN that in order to maintain a 1.5 degree limit to the rise in global temperatures, there should be no new oil and gas developments globally.
The AEP revenue of almost $14 million in 2022 derives primarily from members’ fees and conferences. The lobby group increased its liquid assets easily accessible assets to almost $9 million, over $3 million of which is cash.
Like a charity, and despite being a front for the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations who pay little income tax in Australia themselves, their lobbying front AEP has an exemption from paying tax.