Too close to the flame: WA government accused of being limp on climate change after revolving doors with oil and gas giants

The WA Premier and three high-level ministers have met with gas companies and lobby groups nearly 140 times since Labor came to power in 2017.

On seven occasions, the party received donations from the companies either on the day of the meeting or a short time later.

The report found ministers met with Woodside, Chevron and gas lobby groups at least 141 times since 2017.Credit:File images

The Captured State: The influence of the gas lobby on WA report from anti-fossil fuel activist group 350 Perth has revealed the extraordinary access gas companies and lobby groups have to ministers in charge of regulating the sector.

The report paid special attention to the diaries of Premier Mark McGowan, Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan, Mines and Petroleum Minister Bill Johnston, and Environment Minister Stephen Dawson, comparing meeting dates with gas companies and lobbyists to electoral commission donation records.

The findings have prompted accusations the closeness of the gas industry to the WA government was resulting in a slow response to climate change and limp efforts to hold the sector to account for its contribution to Australia's greenhouse gas emissions and on Aboriginal heritage issues.

The ministerial diaries, obtained through freedom of information requests by 350 Perth, showed nearly 140 instances since 2017 where the Premier and ministers met with gas companies or lobby groups including the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association and the Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA.

The activist group conceded some meetings with CME did not involve discussion on energy issues because the chamber also represented the mining sector.

Meeting purposes ranged from a vague "quick update" to a full-scale "urgent" roundtable discussion on March 14, 2019, between Mr McGowan, Mr Dawson and Mr Johnston with the main gas players about the Environmental Protection Authority’s controversial move to impose a zero-emissions limit on new gas projects.

Some of the meetings took place over the phone, while others were held at Perth cafes.

Anthony Collins, one of the report's authors, said the most shocking findings were the number of times Woodside and Chevron met with Labor ministers, then donated to the party.

On three occasions, Chevron donated thousands of dollars to the Labor party on the day of the meeting. The largest of these donations was a $6600 payment made to WA Labor on August 29, 2017, the same day Chevron met with Alannah MacTiernan for an unknown reason.

On four other occasions, Woodside and Chevron donated to Labor just days after the companies met with ministers. On one occasion, Woodside donated $6600 to WA Labor five days after a meeting with Mr Johnston regarding an 'overview of Burrup Hub developments', and the day before the company met with Mr Dawson.

Mr Collins said while there was nothing illegal about making a donation on the same day as a meeting with a minister, it sent a poor message. There is also no evidence to suggest that policy decisions on climate change were improperly influenced by donations from the industry.

"The fossil fuel industry seems to be in and out of the offices of ministers very frequently and it's the idea of 'state capture' that they're interweaving the mindset of prioritising more fossil fuel production, specifically more oil and gas production over everything else," he said.

"Oil and gas corporations have continuously expanded their production in WA, at great cost to both Aboriginal heritage and the habitability of the planet for future generations. So far, nowhere near enough is being done to combat the crisis we face."

Mr Collins said he was also shocked at how casual the meetings were and said, anecdotally, green groups often struggled to get an audience with ministers. He called on Mr McGowan to use the same tough stance he had on the hard borders on the fossil fuel industry.

"They just have a coffee catch-up here and there and I see that as somewhat inappropriate for ministers to be meeting with essentially lobbyists and having that casual relationship so frequently," he said.

The report urged readers to contact their local MP and ask for a range of transparency changes, including publishing diaries and political donations in real time.

Greens spokeswoman for government integrity Alison Xamon said the report highlighted the need for improved transparency.

"It just shows how poor our transparency measures are. Diaries need to be published regularly and we need 'cash-for-access' fundraising banned," she said.

A McGowan government spokesman said donations were managed by WA Labor but it was part of a minster's job to meet with stakeholders and it was "completely appropriate" for them to meet with representatives in these industries.

The spokesman said the oil and gas industry employed tens of thousands of people in WA and many of the meetings involved the LNG jobs taskforce. He said the government had committed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and defended the environment minister's interactions with oil and gas companies.

"It would be grossly irresponsible for any environment minister to refrain from meeting with representatives from these industries. Such a course of action would lead to negative environmental outcomes," he said.

APPEA, CME, Chevron and Woodside all defended their dealings with the state government and all said meetings had increased since February as the industry and government worked together during COVID-19.

APPEA WA director Claire Wilkinson said given the sector's role in creating jobs and generating economic activity, it would be strange if the industry and individual companies didn’t engage with government and political leaders from all sides on a regular basis, as other industries did.

"A fundamental principle of democracy is that people and groups of all persuasions are able to engage with democratically elected representatives," she said.

A Woodside spokeswoman said the 350 Perth report captured a period of increased activity for Woodside as it progressed approvals at the Burrup Peninsula.

"These are significant proposals which require a number of agreements and approvals and therefore regular engagement with the state and Commonwealth governments has been required," she said.

A Chevron spokeswoman said the company regularly engaged with the WA government on matters of interest to the state, Chevron, and the communities it operated in.

"We participate in political party business forums on a bipartisan basis. All activities are fully disclosed to electoral authorities," she said.

"We appreciate the government’s willingness to work with the energy industry, which is essential to powering homes, businesses and industry across WA."

CME chief executive Paul Everingham said the chamber regularly collaborated with government and ministerial offices on initiatives that involved areas of shared interest and benefit, including the recent launch of the WA resources sector portal and the Goldfields-Esperance business register.

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