Barossa concept; Source: Santos

Australia’s oil & gas industry throws its support behind calls to cut taxpayer funding for activist group

In the wake of court shaming that hit the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), an Australian NGO, following the legal battle over Santos’ subsea gas pipeline, many have publicly denounced their support for the taxpayer-funded organization that takes legal action over climate change and environmental issues. Australian Energy Producers, representing Australia’s upstream oil and gas exploration and production industry, has also sided with the steps being taken across the country to strip the activist group of taxpayer funding due to a scathing assessment of its conduct by the Federal Court.

Barossa concept; Source: Santos

The criticism over the EDO’s conduct in court is mounting after Federal Justice, Natalie Charlesworth, said the NGO had pushed untruths, created false evidence, and coached witnesses in its legal challenge of Santos’ Barossa gas project located in Australian waters off the Northern Territory of Australia. As a result, the judgment ended up in favor of Santos, enabling the Australian giant to continue with its planned work on the development project.

This is not the first time that the Environmental Defenders Office lost public support for federal funding, as another cut was initiated by former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, in 2013. The funding was reinstated by the Albanese government when it came into power, committing to provide over $8 million to the EDO over four years. Currently, the NGO receives a government grant of $2 million a year – slated to remain in place from 2023 to 2026. The rest of the activist group’s revenue comes from philanthropic donors, state, and territory governments.

However, the latest court shaming is already having a huge impact on taxpayer funding for the Environmental Defenders Office, judging by calls from former WA Liberal premier, Colin Barnett. for the EDO to be abolished altogether, a pledge from the LNP in Queensland to pull the plug on state funding for the group, and Peter Dutton’s promise to cut funding from the NGO if the Coalition wins the next elections.

David Morris, Chief Executive of EDO, commented: “We are reviewing the judgement carefully but as the matter remains before the court, we are limited in making further comment. While this decision was devastating for EDO’s clients and deeply disappointing for EDO and supporters like you, our determination to continue providing public interest legal services to communities across the continent is unwavering. We provide these services in circumstances where, were it not for EDO, access to environmental justice in Australia would be seriously diminished.”

In the aftermath of the Federal Court’s ruling, in which the EDO’s case against the Santos-operated Barossa gas project was rejected on the grounds of findings indicating that the evidence and claims were “confection” or “construction” and were “so lacking in integrity that no weight can be placed on them,” Australian Energy Producers deemed it “ridiculous” for federal or state taxpayers to fund the Environmental Defenders Office after its recent unprofessional behavior came to light.

While highlighting that the Federal Coalition’s pledge to defund EDO if it won the next election was in the public interest, Samantha McCulloch, Australian Energy Producers Chief Executive, pointed out: “The taxpayer-funded environmental lawfare must end. Taxpayers have been effectively bankrolling a group that uses the courts to delay energy supplies that are urgently needed both here in Australia and in our region to support energy security and the transition to net zero.

“Australia’s economic and energy security cannot be held hostage by such irresponsible actors. The EDO receives millions of dollars of international funding to delay and disrupt projects that are in Australia’s national interest. It is inconceivable that Australian governments would give them a further helping hand to damage our economy.”

As a direct consequence of the court decision in the Barossa case, the Northern Territory Labor government pledged to review its $100,000 annual funding to the EDO while the WA Liberals promised to cease state funding of the EDO, worth $150,000 this year, if the party wins the next elections.

The FID for the Barossa project was taken in 2021, kick-starting the $600 million investment in the Darwin LNG life extension and pipeline tie-in projects to extend the facility life for around 20 years. This development project entails an FPSO vessel, subsea production wells, supporting subsea infrastructure, and a gas export pipeline tied into the existing Bayu-Undan to Darwin LNG pipeline. The first gas production is targeted for the first half of 2025.

Santos is currently engaged in preliminary discussions with Woodside for a potential A$79.09 billion (about $52.19 billion) merger between these two Australian energy giants. If the two heavyweights come together, the merger is anticipated to unlock more growth opportunities and create an Australian gas market giant.

The Australian government has set the wheels into motion to come to grips with a brewing cauldron of uncertainty surrounding the offshore regulatory approvals system, emphasizing the need for clear regulations to enable the country’s economic and energy security. One of the main pillars to tackle this will be the government’s new gas strategy. Woodside is one of the contributors to this strategy.

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Many of the submissions have pointed out that gas will play a key role in “a responsible energy transition,” according to Woodside.