“Extremely investor friendly” is how the latest fossil fuel buyer describes Australia. Along with the twilight of the coal era with its astronomical profits has come the rise of squalid public relations tactics. Zacharias Szumer investigates the case of Liechtenstein-based coal trader Sev.en Global Investments, its billionaire owner Pavel Tykač and Sev.en’s propaganda associates.
The recent sale of the Vales Point coal plant to Czech company Sev.en Global Investments has already attracted plenty of controversy. Not least because of the $200 million price tag. It was an extremely tidy turn for Liberal Party donor and local coal baron Trevor St Baker who bought it for only $1 million from the NSW government in 2015.
The sale still has to pass the Foreign Investment Review Board, which is usually a pushover, but Sev.en is already touting the possibility of further investments in Australia, a destination which Sev.en CEO Alan Svoboda recently described as “extremely investor-friendly”. Despite already owning a significant stake in two Queensland coal plants, Sev.en and its billionaire owner Pavel Tykač, are relatively unknown in Australia.
This is not so much the case in Tykač’s home country, where Sev.en owns a swathe of the country’s coal mines and power plants. The tycoon and his company also have a somewhat chequered reputation and have been plagued by allegations of tax evasion and running underhand PR campaigns against environmental groups and renewable energy.
UnderMining the Enemy
According Czech to media reports, public relations companies with a long history of working for Sev.en have also run aggressive campaigns to discredit environmental activism and renewable energy. The campaigns reportedly include the creation of a website and Facebook page named “Greenpiss”, targeting environmental organisation Greenpeace, which had held protests at coal mines and a coal-fired power station owned by Sev.en.
The ‘about’ section of the Greenpiss Facebook page – which has since been renamed but is still active – begins: “We demand an end to eco-terrorism.” A post on September 12 compares the raised fist of solidarity often used by leftist activists to the Nazi sieg heil salute. Other posts regularly paint environmental activists as hypocrites due to their individual carbon footprints.
The page’s posts also regularly target teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, one even depicting her as an ape. A post from 2019 warned that “Greta-ism is starting to slowly turn into Greta-fascism. Anyone who does not go along with them and dares to disagree will be stomped into the ground.” This week the page posted a crude cartoon depiction of Thunberg putting explosives on the Nord Stream gas pipelines.
In late 2021, Sev.en denied any involvement with the anti-environmentalist sites, and said that it was not seeking to diminish public support for decarbonisation. The PR agencies have also previously denied running the anti-environmentalist internet campaign.
However, Czech media investigations have revealed that the ‘Greenpiss’ web domain was owned by current and former employees of the PR companies. In early 2020, a Facebook glitch—which momentarily made it possible to see the admins of Facebook pages—also revealed that the admin of the “Greenpiss” Facebook page was doing social media PR for one of Sev.en’s subsidiaries. In an article in the popular Czech news outlet Aktuálně, the exposed admin acknowledged that he and other site managers had ties to Sev.en.
According to the Czech media reports, the PR companies have had a long working relationship with Sev.en, including the creation of the company’s public image strategy in 2013 and publishing the company’s corporate magazine.
In 2018, one of the PR companies ran a campaign for Sev.en that suggested that, due to intermittency, hydro, solar and wind couldn’t power the Czech Republic. The campaign’s tagline was: “Fortunately, we have coal!” According to Sev.en’s press spokesperson, the aim of the campaign was “not to discredit renewable sources, but rather to point out the objectively insufficient natural conditions [for renewables] in the Czech Republic and to destroy the myth that renewables can power the Czech electricity grid.”
According to Lukáš Hrábek, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Czech Republic, online debate about climate change and energy in the Czech Republic has also been manipulated by networks of fake Facebook profiles that promote coal, attack environmental groups, criticise renewable energy, and rebut people making negative comments about Tykač.
Hrábek says that some of the comments made by these bot accounts veered into the absurd, such as praise for Tykač’s aptitudes as a father, as well as more serious public matters, such as maintaining his innocence when he was being investigated for allegedly siphoning money from an asset management fund in the 1990s. That particular case against Tykač — who was accused of siphoning assets worth 1.2 billion Czech crowns—was dropped by the public prosecutor in 2015 due to a lack of evidence.
Did the Tax Czech Bounce?
A 2020 press release from Czech Greenpeace reports that most of the Czech part of Sev.en is owned by shell companies in Cyprus, which are under the umbrella of Sev.en Energy, which is registered in Liechtenstein. Both Cyprus and Liechtenstein have long had reputations as tax havens, although both have also begun to tighten regulations and raise tax rates in recent years. Svoboda has previously said that the company was not based in Lichtenstein for tax reasons, but “because it is a location that is easy to reach from Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic”.
Greenpeace disagrees with the company’s assessment of its motives. Hrábek says that Tykač’s offshore holding companies are set up to avoid paying tax on the generous profits they generate. “Tykač’s companies are based offshore, and he likes to squeeze them hard and pay generous dividends to himself,” Hrábek told MWM.
As in Australia, the mineral resources of the Czech Republic belong to the government, but Hrábek says that in the past Tykač’s companies have paid minuscule state royalties on the profits they’ve raked in. According to a 2014 Greenpeace study, between 2009 and 2012, [ZS1] Tykač and two other co-owners of his coal companies collected 17 billion Czech Crowns [over AUD$1 billion] in dividends. During the same period, the same companies paid around 0.4 billion Czech crowns [around AUD$25 million) in state royalties.
In 2016, Tykač had a public spat with then Czech finance minister Andrej Babiš over whether the state should contribute compensation funds to employees laid off from one of Tykač’s companies. “I see no reason why we should support Mr. Tykač’s companies, which are based in Cyprus and earn billions,” Babiš said at the time. Tykač countered by saying that Sev.en’s subsidiary companies “are based and pay taxes in the Czech Republic” and that one of them (Severní energetická), was “among the top 20 largest taxpayers in the Czech Republic.”
“We are strengthening in Australia”, Tweeted Pavel’s company on September 19, announcing his acquisition of Vales Point.
Posilujeme v Austrálii. https://t.co/y39ul3C1l6
— Sev.en Energy (@Sev_EnCZ) September 19, 2022
The story translates: “Billionaire Pavel Tykač’s Czech energy company Sev.en bought a coal-fired power plant in Australia. It has agreed to buy the Vales Point power plant in the Australian state of New South Wales with current owners Trevor St Baker and Brian Flannery. Sev.en already owns a stake in the multinational energy company InterGen, which, in addition to Great Britain, also operates in Australia, where it operates two coal-fired power plants.”
The lessons for Australia are clear. Increasingly, fossil fuel assets will be sold to aggressive foreign buyers, the propaganda war will rage on. Regulators should be under increasing pressure to ensure that provisions are put in place for the rehabilitation of mine sites and coal plants. Are Pavel’s companies paying rehab bonds, for instance, or do they simply leave when the party is over? As for tax on their rampaging profits … urgent action is required.