Pitt slammed for $21m handout to Liberal Party linked Beetaloo gas projects

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A gas company with close links to the Liberal Party has secured a $21 million handout from the Morrison government to accelerate the company’s exploration for new gas reserves in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin.

On Wednesday, federal resources minister Keith Pitt announced that he had awarded three grants to Imperial Oil and Gas to accelerate the company’s exploration of the Beetaloo Basin and fund the drilling of new gas wells.

Imperial Oil and Gas will receive a total of $21 million in funding through the grants and will fund the company’s exploration activities within the eastern part of the Beetaloo basin for new gas resources.

The company is a subsidiary of Empire Energy, which has established close ties with the federal Liberal party through the company’s chair, Paul Espie.

Espie has donated almost $400,000 to the Liberal party and aligned organisations over the last few years and chairs the Liberal party-aligned think tank, the Menzies Research Centre, serving on its management committee alongside a number of senior Liberal party members figures.

This includes former Howard era ministers Andrew Robb, Nick Minchin and Trish Worth and former federal director of the Liberal Party Brian Loughnane.

Empire Energy itself has also directly contributed $25,000 to the Liberal Party and has been actively involved in the lobbying of the Morrison government around its ‘gas led’ economic recovery to the economic impacts of Covid-19.

Pitt said the grants were expected to result in “several additional exploration wells” before the end of next year.

“The Coalition Government announced the new strategic basin plan for the Beetaloo Sub-basin in December, with the aim of speeding up investment, exploration and development to unlock jobs and resources under the gas-fired recovery program,” Pitt said.

Climate change advocacy group Australia slammed the $21 million in grant funding awarded to Imperial Oil and Gas, saying it was another example of the Morrison government providing financial support to its own backers in the fossil fuel industry.

“This is a brazen misuse of taxpayer funds to line the pockets of Liberal Party donors, for a fossil fuel project that Traditional Owners in the region have rejected and would be a disaster for our climate,” Australia’s senior campaigner Shani Tager said.

“Australia is coming dead last in the world on climate action and it’s because coal, oil and gas companies are embedded in our politics and that’s got to end.”

“While the Senate is taking the time to do an inquiry and investigate oil and gas in the Beetaloo Basin, Keith Pitt is giving our public money to liberal party donors for fracking,” Tager added.

The grants were awarded under the Morrison government’s $50 million Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program, which is offering to provide grants of up to $7.5 million to support the drilling of each new well within the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin.

The development of the Beetaloo Basin has raised concerns from environmental groups urging the Morrison government to stop providing financial support to new fossil fuel projects and has attracted particularly strong opposition from the region’s First Nations people and Traditional Owners.

GetUp’s First Nations justice campaign director Larissa Baldwin said the announcement of the grants in the middle of NAIDOC Week was particularly galling given this year’s NAIDOC theme of ‘heal country’.

“Smack-bang in the middle of NAIDOC Week – Resources and Water Minister Keith Pitt has announced the Government is gifting public money to gas corporations intent on desecrating the Beetaloo Basin, against the express wishes of Traditional Owners,” Baldwin said.

“If Keith Pitt thinks that First Nations communities and Traditional Owners across the NT are going to take this lying down, he’s got another thing coming.”

The awarding of the first grants under the drilling program follows a decision by Pitt to provide a $175 million concessional loan to a Queensland coal mine, and just months after Pitt used his ministerial powers to veto a similar loan that would have been provided to a wind farm in regional North Queensland.

Ironically, the grants awarded to the gas companies came on the same day as AGL Energy announced that it would begin mothballing the first of four units at its gas-fired Torrens B power station, attributing the growth of renewables and surging gas prices as making the ageing plant financially unviable.

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