Gas company Empire Energy paid $4,500 to attend a Liberal party fundraiser held a day before flying senior Coalition and conservative figures, including federal energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor, in a private jet to visit the company’s gas operations in the Beetaloo Basin.
The fundraiser was followed by a series of site visits, meetings and email exchanges revealed in senate documents that ultimately led to Empire Energy gaining a $21 million grant from the Morrison government to fund further gas exploration works in the Beetaloo Basin.
In response to questions put to Empire Energy during a Senate inquiry into the expansion of oil and gas exploration in the Beetaloo Basin, Empire Energy confirmed that the Hume Forum – a fundraising body affiliated with Taylor – had told the company about an October fundraising event being hosted by the forum in Darwin.
“We were first advised by a telephone call from the Hume Forum on or about 25 September 2020,” Empire Energy managing director Alex Underwood told the inquiry.
The Hume Forum has raised substantial cash used to fund the election campaigns of various conservative Liberal party candidates, including Michael Sukkar and Andrew Hastie.
The fundraising event was held in Darwin on 15 October and Underwood told the senate inquiry that Empire Energy had paid $4,500 to attend the dinner.
The response shows that it was the fundraising body affiliated with Taylor that instigated contact with Empire Energy about the company’s attendance at the fundraising dinner in Darwin.
Chairman of Empire Energy, Paul Espie, has been a significant financial supporter of the Liberal party, donating almost $400,000 to the Liberal party and aligned organisations over the last few years. Espie serves as chair of the Liberal party-aligned thinktank, the Menzies Research Centre.
Espie’s nephew, Alex Underwood, serves as the managing director of Empire Energy.
Timeline to $21 million gas grant for Empire Energy.
“On or about 25 September 2020”
The Hume Forum, a fundraising body aligned with Angus Taylor, tells Empire Energy that there will be a Liberal party fundraiser in Darwin in October.
Empire Energy pays $4,500 to attend the Liberal party fundraising event in Darwin, with Angus Taylor in attendance.
Empire Energy has confirmed that it used the occasion of the fundraising dinner to organise, and cover the costs, of a site visit for Taylor, a number of senior Liberal party figures, their advisers, fossil fuel industry representatives and a reporter from Sky News to visit the company’s gas exploration activities in the Beetaloo Basin.
The visit to Empire Energy’s operations occurred on the day after the Liberal Party fundraising event. Empire Energy covered the costs of the trip, including a chartered flight for Taylor, his adviser and the chair of the Hume Forum, Ryan Arrold.
Attendees of the site visit were also invited to a second dinner, paid for by Empire Energy, at the Wharf One Restaurant in Darwin on the evening of the site visit.
While there is no suggestion that Empire Energy used the site visit to pressure Taylor for government funding, Empire Energy management continued to engage and communicate with Taylor about potential of government grants in the months that followed.
Late 2020/Early 2021
Correspondence obtained via a freedom of information request shows that representatives from Empire Energy had discussed the potential of a “Beetaloo Grant Program” with Taylor’s office sometime before Christmas.
Empire Energy followed up with Taylor’s office in January and February to arrange a follow up meeting with the energy minister.
10 March 2021
Taylor and an adviser met with both Espie and Underwood from Empire Energy at parliamentary offices in Sydney.
A response provided by the Department of Industry Science, Energy and Resources says that while Taylor met with Empire Energy on 10 March, the meeting did not cover potential “process, timeline or guidelines” relating to the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program.
“Minister Taylor has not held any meetings with Empire Energy regarding the Beetaloo Cooperation [sic] Drilling Program’s process, timeline or guidelines,” the department said.
However, Underwood told a senate inquiry in July that he had discussed the grants program with Taylor during the March meeting.
“I made a general statement that I believe the grant program was a good policy to accelerate the development of the basin,” Underwood told the inquiry.
18 March 2021
On 18 March, eight days after the Sydney meeting, federal resources minister Keith Pitt announced the $50 million Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program.
7 April 2021
Documents released by the department show that a wholly owned subsidiary of Empire Energy, Imperial Oil and Gas, was amongst the first to apply for funding through the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program – getting their application in a mere three weeks later, on 7 April.
7 July 2021
In July, the Empire Energy subsidiary was awarded $21 million in government funding – close to the maximum amount that could be awarded to a single company under the program – to fund the drilling of three new gas wells in the Beetaloo Basin.
Documents released by the department show that Imperial Oil and Gas was awarded funding, despite at least one of the department’s grant assessors finding that the project did not satisfy the grant criteria.
The documents show that the other two grant assessors found the drilling projects satisfied the grant criteria, and three grants were subsequently approved with some conditions.
To date, the Empire Energy subsidiary is the only company to receive funding under the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program.
Underwood also confirmed in late July that Empire Energy had secured this funding, despite not yet having secured environmental approvals for the drilling works.
“We are in the late stages of seeking approvals. The approvals process under the environmental regulations in the Northern Territory is extensive, and we absolutely acknowledge that’s appropriate, that strong regulation should be carried out in the Northern Territory, but I can confirm that we will not be carrying out any work program activities until those environmental approvals are in place,” Underwood told a senate inquiry.
The expansion of gas exploration in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin has been heavily criticised by a number of environmental, health and First Nations groups.
The office of Angus Taylor has been contacted for comment.