Gas company Empire Energy covered the costs of a trip to its operations in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin, attended by a number of key Liberal party figures, including major donors, fossil fuel industry figures, Murdoch media … and federal energy minister Angus Taylor.
The details of the trip have been revealed through a response to questions provided by Empire Energy to a Senate inquiry into oil and gas exploration in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin.
The site visit was held in October last year, with the group travelling to see a gas well drilled by Empire Energy at its operations in the Beetaloo Basin. The trip was made a day after a Country Liberal Party fundraising event, held in Darwin.
The Morrison government has sought to pour significant funding into the expansion of the Northern Territory’s gas industry, a push that has been slammed by a number of environmental, health and First Nations groups.
The Morrison government allocated $50 million for a “Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program” in the last federal budget to fund the establishment of new gas wells in the Beetaloo Basin.
Empire Energy has since secured $21 million of this funding – the only company to receive funding under the program to date – to cover the cost of drilling a further three new gas wells at the company’s Carpentaria site.
Taylor, who has struggled to make time to attend the opening of the dozens of wind and solar farms since becoming minister, including in his own electorate, was joined on the trip by Northern Territory coalition Senator Sam McMahon, who has previously described the ambitious Sub Cable project that plans to build a massive 10GW solar farm in the Northern Territory as a “hoax”.
Also attending was the leader of the Country Liberal Party Lia Finocchiaro, and former director of the oil and gas industry group APPEA, Keld Knudsen.
Nick Cater, the executive director of the Liberal party aligned think tank Menzies Research Centre, and – like Taylor – a fierce critic of wind and solar policies, also joined the trip.
Empire Energy chairperson, Paul Espie, serves as the chair of the Menzies Research Centre, which produces research and hosts events in support of the Liberal party’s policy platform.
Espie has donated almost $400,000 to the Liberal party and aligned organisations over the last few years and serves on the management committee of the Menzies Research Centre alongside a number of other senior Liberal party members figures.
Tagging along on the trip to the Beetaloo project were a number of political advisers, representatives of Macquarie Group, oil and gas industry group Energy Club NT, Taylor’s energy advisor Stephanie Muecke and a representative of the Murdoch media owned Sky News.
The chairman of the Hume Forum, a Liberal Party fundraising arm that has made significant financial contributions to Liberal party election efforts, also attended the trip.
Disclosures made to the Australian Electoral Commission show that the Hume Forum, aligned with the NSW chapter of the Liberal Party, made financial contributions totalling $213,000 in the 2018-19 financial year. It is unclear where the Hume Forum originally sourced the funds.
The Guardian Australia has reported that Hume Forum chairman Ryan Arrold attendance of the trip was on the invitation of Empire Energy, and it is not suggested that Arrold had been invited on the trip directly by Taylor or his office.
Oct 2020, Empire flew Angus Taylor to its fracking site in NT for a photo opp. While in Darwin they also had dinner and went to a CLP party fundraiser.
— Tom Swann (@Tom_Swann) July 27, 2021
The attendance of so many Liberal party aligned figures in the trip was in part due to the fact it coincided with a fundraising event for the NT Country Liberal Party, the evening prior on 15 October.
Empire Energy told the senate committee that it was aware of the CLP fundraising dinner, but it did not refer to the event in its invitation to Taylor and others to attend a site visit the next day.
Empire Energy said that representatives of the company attended the CLP fundraising event but were not involved in the organising of the event.
Empire Energy did, however, host a dinner for attendees of the site visit on 16 October.
“On the evening of 16 October, after the site visit, a dinner was held in Darwin for participants on the site visit. That dinner was paid for by Empire Energy, just as we provided breakfast and lunch to participants earlier that day,” Empire Energy told the committee.
The $21 million in federal government funding that was subsequently awarded to Empire Energy was signed off by resources minister Keith Pitt, who did not attend the site visit.