Gaslighting our future with the COVID-19 crisis

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Former mining executive Neville Power has been appointed leader of a COVID-19 Commission (Screenshot via YouTube)

Scott Morrison has used his ties to the gas sector to make a strange choice for a leader of his COVID-19 Commission, writes David Paull.

THE APPOINTMENT of Neville Power as the Chairman of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s COVID-19 Coordination Commission, an “ex-mining executive” from relative obscurity, raises propriety questions on the choice the PM has made and is a revealing insight into his vision for our economic future.

Who is Neville Power? His appointment to the COVID-19 Commission was probably the first time most had heard of him. It was reported widely that Mr Power was an “ex-Fortescue” mining executive, though little mention has been made in the media as to his current role with onshore gas operator Strike Energy (where he has been a Director and Vice-Chairperson since 2016), even after his appearance on Q+A and subsequent statements.

It seems somewhat odd, with the pool of potential talent available in this country in relation to emergencies and big picture social and economic issues, that a mining executive is the first choice that comes to mind. The appointment of David Thodey of CSIRO should reassure some as he is accompanied on the commission by banking, business and telecommunications representatives, as well as Ms Catherine Tanna who is the Managing Director of Energy Australia and ex-gas giant the BG Group, who helped open up the Queensland gas fields.

Mr Power, in his role, needs to be keeping an ear open to innovative ideas that will help pull the country out of economic doldrums and, as reported by Sky News, Power’s focus will be on reducing energy costs, value-adding to the agricultural sector and the development of a “high tech, flexible manufacturing industry”, less reliant on China. He sees natural gas as the solution, not surprisingly, for a clean and cheap energy future for Australia.

As he reported to the Daily Telegraph, he has come up with a rough list of high-priority projects, at the top is a new ammonium nitrate plant, only possible if the Narrabri Gas Project goes ahead — a controversial greenfield project still in regulatory limbo in NSW. The cat was out.

But what most people are not aware of is that Mr Power, like Ms Tanna, is very much into greenfield gas development.

Strike Energy, whose mission statement is ‘A Future Source of Clean Energy’ is a gas exploration company with interest in three main onshore fields in the early stages of exploration and development. The Cooper Basin, South Australia, where Strike has been using “fracture simulation” techniques to undertake production testing; the new West Erregulla lease where Strike has claimed it has made the likely discovery of a major new gas source using the deepest onshore gas well in Australia; and their Perth Basin lease in WA, where big expectations of new discoveries are on the lips of investors.

The share price for the company had been on a long-term “bearish” downward trend, though recovered significantly in early March this year to buck the sector trend and regain half of the value of its 12-month high. Quite remarkable, given the current situation of the global oil and gas market. Perhaps assisting the value of the company is that they are not actually producing anything... yet. And the market likes companies with big promises.

(Graph supplied)

Strike also have big financial backers. The largest shareholders include some of the biggest investment banks: JP Morgan Nominees Australia, MHC Fund Services A Pty Ltd, Citicorp Nominees Pty Limited and HSBC Custody Nominees (Australia) Limited. But a significant amount of the shareholdings are owned by the members of the board. None more so than Mr Power himself.

It did not rate a mention outside of the usual market news at the time, but one month prior to Mr Power securing the tidy job with the COVID-19 Commission, he invested a significant amount of his own cash into the company — some $320,000 amounting to 19 per cent of the company’s holding. Reported as an “inside” move, investors took notice, shoring up the STX share price.

But fortune was to smile on Strike again. Just a few days before Mr Power’s position on the COVID-19 Commission was announced to the public, Stephen Bizzell, another Director, secured a new line of credit from investment bank HSBC, another confidence-inspiring move for the market to digest. Bizzell, formerly of Arrow Energy, used his management firm Bizzell Capital Partners to secure the loan from HSBC. He has raised capital in this way for several large mining ventures involving Armour Energy, Whitehaven Coal and Stanmore Coal.

The share price rally last month has placed Strike in one of the best positions for a gas explorer in Australia at a time of pandemic-induced market panic. What makes this more remarkable is the parlous state of the gas and oil sector worldwide. Kevin Gallagher of Santos divested himself of his own company to the tune of $2.2 million dollars only last week, suggesting the general level of confidence in the sector was and still is heading in the other direction.

Nev Power, it seems, knows a good investment, better than most in fact, particularly if you are an “insider”. But two important questions remain. Besides his business savviness, what expertise will he actually bring to the Commission? The other being, how long did he know of his upcoming appointment?

The answer to the first question, it seems, is knowledge of the gas and mining sector. One which is completely in line with the vision held by our Prime Minister. One has to look no further than the pressure on Victoria to relinquish its restrictions on onshore gas development, which in the end was recently achieved, or the gaslighting exerted by the Prime Minister in relation to onshore gas development — again targeting the Narrabri Gas Project.  

The recent approval of Arrow Energy’s (owned by Shell/Petro-China) expansion in the Surat Basin came as a great disappointment to many who have argued for a long time against the merits of this sector. No doubt an industry signal that the Government is still willing to back this sector, no matter how insolvent they may become. Approvals have, after all, a short-term market value.

Let’s not forget the political donations to the Liberal/National Parties from the resource and energy sector, amounting to over $9.2 million since 2012. No records exist for any Strike Energy donations directly to the LNP, though a partner in the WA fields, Beach Energy, has donated over $230,000 to the LNP in the last seven years. Energy Australia has also made significant donations over the years.

While the gas sector still maintains a façade of being a “clean” industry, this is a claim that should have been long dismissed as the evidence has now shown that the gas industry is only clean as long as they can greenwash the truth from the public — a PR exercise of monumental proportions in fact, as recent evidence now shows. Will Mr Power be as honest to the public about the COVID-19 crisis as he is about this claim?

His solutions so far, headed by an ammonium nitrate plant, should tell us what direction the post-crisis economic recovery is heading. The public awaits the cost-benefit analysis with anticipation.

How long did Mr Power know of his upcoming position on the Committee and did it influence the rise in fortunes of Strike Energy? Only the Prime Minister’s Office and the board of Strike Energy know the answer to this question.

David Paull is an Australian ecologist. You can follow David on Twitter @davesgas.

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