Revelations about former Prime Minister Scott Morrison secretly swearing himself in to five ministerial portfolios may have substantial consequences for coastal communities between Newcastle and the Sydney Basin who are opposed to offshore gas exploration and mining.
By Jackie Pearson
Lucy Wicks, former Member for Robertson, sent an email to her constituents on Saturday, April 9, 2022 proclaiming that her leader, Scott Morrison, had taken the final step to reject the application for the Offshore Petroleum Exploration Permit, PEP-11.
Many communities along the NSW coast from Newcastle down to the Sydney basin had been actively campaigning against the PEP-11 gas exploration license for several years and Ms Wicks knew it was a major election issue. It appeared, at the time, that she’d not had any luck convincing Resources Minister, Keith Pitt, and had turned to the Prime Minister to make a captain’s call.
Morrison had visited the Central Coast in December 2021 to declare the exploration licence dead with Wicks at his side. Those with any understanding of Ministerial responsibility under the Westminster System thought it odd at the time. It certainly represented a kick in the teeth to Minister Pitt, who appeared willing to give the go-ahead for exploration wells off the east coast and had been taking his time with making the decision.
The cancellation of the PEP-11 licence will be welcome news for the many local residents who used their voices to ensure our waterways remain protected now and into the future,” Wicks said in her mailout the following April.
“Surfing, fishing and boating are a part of our everyday life on the Central Coast and now that lifestyle will be preserved for future generations. The National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator (NOPTA) has advised the applicant of the decision,” she said.
On March 30, 2022, days before Wicks sent out her constituent email, BHP Energey and Bounty Oil and Gas, who were partners in the PEP-11 project with Asset Energy, notified the Australian Stock Exchange that they had been given notice by the National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator (NOPTA) that NOPTA had refused the joint venture application initially submitted on December 24, 2019 “for a secondary work program variation and a 24-month suspension of the Permit Year 4 Work Program Commitment and the Corresponding 24-month extension of the permit term”.
The statement to market also said the joint venture had “statutory legal rights to seek a review of the decision referred to in the notice under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas storage Act of 2006 and is obtaining legal advice on such a review process”.
The Morrison PEP-11 announcement did not save Lucy Wicks. She lost the seat to Labor newcomer Gordon Reid in the May election, with the help of Greens preferences.
The Newcastle Herald subsequently reported that: “PEP11 shareholder Asset Energy Pty Ltd has lodged a case in the Federal Court alleging former prime minister Scott Morrison was ‘biased’ in his decision not to renew the exploration permit for the seabed area off the coast…” And that was before the revelations of Morrison’s one-man cabinet.
The Australian public has now learned that Scott Morrison made his captain’s call on PEP-11 not as Prime Minister but as the ‘second’ secret Minister for Resources. He did this without the awareness of Keith Pitt, other cabinet ministers or the public.
David Breeze, executive director of Asset Energy, the PEP-11 licenceholder, took to ABC radio in Newcastle to explain the company’s current position.
Breeze told ABC radio the testing that had been done to date made Asset Energy and its partners confident PEP-11 would deliver gas to the NSW marketplace at affordable levels.
“We think that in the light of the international energy crisis and the energy crisis in NSW that it is extremely important that we be allowed to proceed with the project,” Breeze said. “This is a critical consumer and household issue.”
In terms of the environmental risk of offshore drilling, Breeze said the area “off Munmorah” was safe, citing the over 1000 wells drilled around Australia “quite safely over the past 50-60 years…It would come in through an undersea and underground pipeline…straight into the Munmorah gas pipeline.”
He called ‘offshore NSW’ an asset that can be used very safely in an environmental way to produce gas for use as “baseload” power for consumers in NSW and beyond.
Josh Kirkman, CEO of Surfers for Climate, presented an alternate view of the environmental consequences of PEP-11 being allowed to go ahead, again on ABC radio Newcastle.
“You can try to downplay the significance of such an exploration and the eventual extraction of oil and gas from our environment but at the end of the day anything we do is going to be contributing to climate change and we all know the country is moving beyond that.”
The Member for Robertson, Gordon Reid, said he could not comment further on the matter before the Federal Court in relation to PEP-11.
“My thoughts on the PEP-11 project are well known. My position has not changed,” Reid said in a statement for The Point. He had stated during the federal election campaign that he was opposed to drilling off the coast.
“Scott Morrison engaged in an extraordinary and unprecedented trashing of our democracy. These actions show disdain for parliament and contempt for the Australian public,” Reid said.
“Peter Dutton insisted there was nothing to see here and ran away from questioning on the topic – apparently he doesn’t see a problem with keeping Australians in the dark when they are voting.”
Morrison’s public statements following the revelation of his extra-curricular activities as PM indicated that he didn’t use the additional ministerial powers he and the Governor General, with advice from former Attorney General Christian Porter, had given him but in the case of PEP-11 he did ‘step in’ and override the real Minister for Resources.
Coastal communities, who thought Morrison had successfully killed off PEP-11 will now need to wait for the outcome of the Federal Court challenge to the decision.
Morrison has argued his decision to ‘shadow’ five of his ministers was not illegal and was in the best interests of the country.
It remains to be seen whether or not cutting Keith Pitt out of the decision-making process on PEP-11 will strengthen Asset’s position when it gets its day in the Federal Court.