WOODSIDE ECOCIDE. GASSING THE FUTURE
Header Image © Greenpeace
“I think it's always a dangerous practice to say I will or won't do a certain thing”
- Meg O’Neill, CEO, Woodside Energy, October 2022.
We are a dozen or so songs into Midnight Oil’s last ever live concert in Perth and the final settling notes and beats of one of the band’s iconic anthems are fading out. I’m standing in the crowd at the RAC Arena looking up at the stage, close-ish but not in the front ranks. Around me, thousands of people, most seated in the steepling stands, contribute to an expectant, impatient low clamour of whistles, cheers, claps and shouts, as each experiences the familiar punctuated anticipation of the rock concert; wondering which track will be up next.
The white stage lighting begins to smudge red, like blood in the air. Then everything goes black for a few seconds before the back screen abruptly lights up in stop-sign crimson, emblazoned with the pale silhouette of a hand holding the earth on fire, accompanied by bold white text:
There is a collective drawing of breath: the Oils are about to have a go at Woodside Energy, one of the most politically and economically powerful actors in Western Australia, and among the ten largest oil and gas companies on earth.
Woodside is pushing ahead with the Burrup Hub, the worst climate-polluting infrastructure proposed anywhere in the nation. This monstrous gas export project will be located off the North West coast of WA, in a locus of marine parks and whale migration routes, home to some of Australia's most dazzling ocean wildlife.
Woodside plans to open two new gas drilling sites, Scarborough and Browse, and extend the life of its hulking North West Shelf processing plant all the way through to the 2070s. This activity would produce six billion tonnes of climate pollution throughout its operation, effectively blowing Australia's chance at a safer climate future. And that's without considering the profound environmental cost of dumping hundreds of kilometres of pipelines, dredging the ocean floor, seismic blasting to assess reserves and drilling, including right under a coral reef.
Many decades ago, evangelists for neoliberalism gave western leaders a new vision for reform: promoting ‘freedom’ based on the notion of unfettered individuals competing in a ‘free market’ with minimal state interference. They relentlessly promoted their vision as the true path to progress and happiness, and seized on crises to create ‘real change’ (in the words of Milton Friedman).
Back in the stadium, a few seconds have passed and lead vocalist Peter Garrett has changed t-shirts in the darkness. The frontman’s chest is now a placard:
Still pinching the fresh garment into place across his shoulders, Garrett gathers concentration and begins to speak, just as the spotlights find him:
Now whether you want to hear this or not in the corporate boxes, when you are making a lot of money you still have a moral responsibility to future generations…So why is Woodside, this company, wanting to produce so much poisonous gas?
As the tirade unfolds, the singer’s right arm jabs out, like an emu at the peck, the whole force of the man instilled in the gesture, body aligned in moral challenge instantiated with blunt physicality.
Simon ‘Bloke’ Collins, music critic in Perth’s only daily paper, later describes Garrett’s three-minute excoriation of Woodside as ‘an extraordinary barrage’. The rest of the Oils then take off, drummer Rob Hirst and guitarists Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey and Adam Ventoura providing an instrumental that rises to an angry crescendo accompanying a five-minute backing video that starkly articulates the case against Woodside.
Only then does the musical prosecution rest. Woodside has been indicted in front of more than ten thousand witnesses.
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Over many years, it has been the decisions of those in the corporate boxes that have propelled the world into the storm of climate emergency, with flagrant disregard for the impact on humanity and nature.
The scientific cause and effect, that coal, oil, and gas are the primary drivers of climate change, has been known for decades. Documentary evidence makes clear that fossil fuel industry executives were aware of the dangers of global warming as early as the 1950s.
US giant Exxon was among the major corporations to commission internal research in the 1980s about the disastrous consequences that their business was having on the planet. In 1982, a secret 40-page memo was given wide circulation to Exxon management, but ‘not to be distributed externally’, which accurately predicted the catastrophic implications of rising emissions.
Exxon and others would go on to spend millions, funding misinformation to delay climate action, all the while continuing to expand its growth.
Apart from the catastrophic cumulative effects on the global climate, the extraction and burning of coal, oil, and gas is also associated with dreadful direct impacts on the environment. According to Woodside’s own modelling, an accident at the Scarborough gas basin could adversely impact eight different marine parks and protected areas.
Back in 1989, an Exxon ship crashed into Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound in Alaska, spilling more than 250,000 barrels of crude oil in just a couple of days, causing vast damage to the region’s delicate ecology, and to the culture and livelihoods of local communities. The visceral images of dying animals, smothered in black poison, puzzled in their suffering, unable to escape, became instantly iconic.
The disaster was one of the global stories of the year and ‘Exxon’ became metonymic for corporate crimes against the planet.
Among the various global protests that followed, in the midst of their tour of the USA in 1990, Midnight Oil pulled up on a flatbed truck outside the Exxon building in New York City, staging a short guerrilla concert, accompanied by a stage banner that read ‘Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes Us Sick’. Footage of the concert was later commercially released under the title ‘Black Rain Falls’ with proceeds going to Greenpeace.
Despite the ubiquitous horror and revulsion at the consequences of Exxon’s actions, clearly not everyone was put off the company. In 1994, Woodside’s current CEO, Meg O’Neill, joined what was then ExxonMobil as a research engineer. O’Neill stayed with Exxon for 23 years, prospering and rising high in the corporation’s executive hierarchy.
In 2014, in a profile piece with her university’s alumni magazine, O’Neill was asked about the secret of her success with Exxon. As the interviewer noted, the oil and gas executive credited much of her career success and personal satisfaction to her willingness to say yes to whatever the company wanted. And as to her next career move?
“We’ll see what ExxonMobil asks me to do,” says O’Neill. “I’m confident that I will say ‘yes.’”
In 2018, the long-time servant of Exxon said ‘yes’ to another company instead, when she was recruited to join Woodside Energy as Chief Operating Officer and given the chance ‘to really shape a company’s future’. A few years later, the departure of Woodside’s incumbent CEO created an even greater opportunity for O’Neill, who, after an initial period of acting up in the role, was appointed as the permanent head of the corporation in August 2021.
One of the boiler-plate pieces of advice given to new CEOs is to really take time for deep thinking about the strategic context for your business or organisation. Just weeks after O’Neill commenced acting as CEO at Woodside, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, a landmark special report providing the first comprehensive sectoral pathway toward global net-zero emissions by 2050. One of the headline findings of the report was of central relevance to Woodside:
Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required.
The IEA’s executive director, eminent energy economist Fatih Birol reiterated this central message, telling the media that ‘[i]f governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year.’ Six months later, Woodside Energy announced the opposite of what the IEA had mandated; making the final investment decision to spend US$12 billion to mine the Scarborough offshore gas field and expand the existing Pluto infrastructure facility - core components of the Burrup Hub.
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Some months before the Midnight Oil concert in Perth, I was among a diverse group of people who quietly entered Woodside’s AGM carrying proxy-votes for absent shareholders in order to communicate directly with Meg O’Neill and Woodside’s chairperson, Richard Goyder.
The room itself was gloomy, grey and cold and I was aware of the tips of my fingers going numb, as proceedings dragged on. The meeting, as journalists would later report, was dominated by questions about the social, environmental and climate impacts of Woodside’s activities.
In the event, almost half of the company’s shareholders voted against the corporation’s climate plans as inadequate. When my own opportunity came to step up to one of the four fixed audience microphones, I quoted the recent statement by Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres that ‘[i]nvesting in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness’ and asked whether Woodside’s plans were economically or morally insane, or both. A terse exchange with Goyder followed, cut short when he directed my mic to be shut down. O’Neill did not speak.
Also among those asking questions at the AGM was Alex Hilman, a senior emissions analyst who had done an eight year stint as an employee of Woodside, but who was now working for the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility. Hilman’s approach was measured and forensic, carefully probing the company’s claims based on his expert detailed knowledge.
The story of Hilman’s career with Woodside is now well known, after featuring on the ABC podcast series ‘Who’s Gonna Save Us?’ which aired in August 2022. He first joined Woodside believing in a theory of change from the inside, but became disillusioned at the lack of progress.
In particular, it was Woodside’s response to the IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 report that was the turning point for Hilman, because he ‘just couldn't see how you could justify continued oil and gas developments’. In the circumstances and knowing what he knows, Hilman simply felt that in all good conscience, he could no longer remain an employee of the company.
A path to redemption for Woodside would involve a moratorium on any expansion, and the development of a comprehensive strategy to shift the business to one based on generating renewable energy at the emergency speed and scale that the climate crisis requires.
Instead, Woodside’s leadership team appear to prefer the opposite, crafting seemingly plausible lines and rationalisations to justify the corporation doubling down on continued fossil fuel extraction.
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Back in the ’90s, O’Neill’s boss at Exxon, company CEO Lee R. Raymond was unabashed in justifying continued fossil fuel expansion with straight-out denial. In 1996 Raymond said that ‘scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect global climate’.
The following year, Raymond claimed at the World Petroleum Congress that the world wasn't warming, and even if it were, it would not be because of oil and gas, and furthermore, that nobody could really predict future temperature rise in any event. The kind of rank denialism that Raymond relied on in the ’90s has largely receded in public pronouncements from corporate leaders, becoming untenable in the face of overwhelming evidence and decisive shifts in public discourse.
In order to maintain social licence, fossil fuel polluters today tend to favour a more insidious approach. In 2020 a research team led by economist William Lamb set out what they called the ‘discourses of delay’ now favoured by fossil fuel corporations, which ‘accept the existence of climate change, but justify inaction or inadequate efforts’.
Rather than obfuscating the existence of the climate crisis, the likes of Woodside now pose as part of the solution: “Guided by our commitment to sustainability, we’re transforming the way we operate to ensure we make a positive difference”, the company’s website claims.
One delay strategy favoured by Woodside is the specious assertion that gas is a lesser evil than coal which makes it, according to a corporate tweet attributed to O’Neill, “the ideal partner for renewables”.
In particular, Woodside argues that increasing gas exports from Australia can reduce emissions in Asia by replacing coal with gas. However, when Woodside actually commissioned the CSIRO to model the theory that expanded gas exports would displace coal in overseas markets, the national science agency found that this was not the case - findings that were suppressed until successful lodgement of freedom of information requests by journalists.
According to leading modellers, Climate Analytics, far from making a positive contribution, Woodside’s Burrup Hub expansion plans are a bet against effective global climate action.
Elsewhere, Meg O'Neill has appeared more preoccupied with what she sees as the danger of moving too quickly to respond to the global climate emergency. In a recent address to a ‘leadership’ event in Perth, for example, the Woodside CEO warned against heeding those who “believe that gas and all other fossil fuels can be removed from our energy systems rapidly”.
According to O’Neill “[w]e need all options on the table if we are to successfully change the way we produce and consume energy and limit temperature rise”. The rhetoric of moderation is used to mask the radical destructiveness of Woodside’s business strategy of continued oil and gas developments. As the Climate Council notes emphatically:
Gas in Australia is dangerous, expensive and unnecessary... Expanding gas supply will fix none of the problems that those pushing such an expansion claim it will. The real solution: a rapid transition to renewables, leaving all fossil fuels in the ground.
The primary drivers of global warming are the use of coal, oil and gas: you don’t solve the problem by doing vast amounts more of the thing that creates the problem. Unless, that is, your real purpose is to just keep saying ‘yes’ to turning a profit, regardless of the consequences for human lives and the ecology of our precious, beautiful planet.
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© Australian Institute for Marine Science
According to a jaunty little piece in Trunkline, Woodside’s inhouse magazine, O’Neill thinks that “Perth’s lifestyle is hard to top”. But the conditions that the Woodside CEO finds so convivial – “it’s a garden spot in the oil and gas world”, she says - are becoming rapidly less amenable, in significant part because of massive corporations like Exxon and Woodside.
Already Perth has experienced a sharp increase in days of extreme heat and extended fire conditions, and things are getting quickly worse. Potentially deadly record-breaking heat is already being forecast for this summer to come. People in Western Australia - and all over the world - are suffering and dying because of the activities of fossil fuel corporations like Woodside driving global warming.
Already Australian temperatures have risen by 1.47 degrees since records began in 1910, with disastrous impacts on human beings and nature. Whether we can build a bridge through to a world returning to flourishing, in large part depends on whether companies like Woodside get away with their plans to gas our future.
At law, proof of madness can provide the basis for the defence of insanity, the logic being that the accused can’t justly be held responsible for their actions because they didn’t know what they were doing at the time due to psychiatric disorder. Woodside is clearly not mad in that sense. The executive leadership of this massive oil and gas corporation knows, or should know, exactly what they are doing.
During Midnight Oil’s intervention, the theme of Woodside’s knowing culpability was particularly central to Peter Garrett’s tirade:
It is a corporate, moral and cultural crime that they are committing.
And I use that word advisedly because back in law school one of the things you learn is that someone is guilty of something if they cause harm whilst knowing what the consequences are — foreseeable harm, just like the tobacco companies used to do, fudging their way around the world while people died of cancer. The same thing is happening with fossil fuel companies.
The term favoured by the band as the central motif, ‘ecocide’, was chosen advisedly. Stop Ecocide International defines ecocide as ‘unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.’ The NGO explains that the climate and ecological emergencies which we now face are the result of many years of harmful industrial practices, including from the fossil fuel industry and that crucially:
[m]ost of the risks have been known for decades by the companies choosing to continue these practices. The responsibility lies with decisions made at the top of industry, finance and government.
Those ‘at the top’ of Woodside should not be in any doubt - not least because an increasingly large and vocal number of Australian citizens openly oppose the company’s Burrup Hub expansion plans, and are loudly letting the company know.
What is more, in addition to the pronouncements by international agencies, the work of independent modellers, the activities of campaigning organisations including Greenpeace and the Conservation Council of WA, the whistleblowing of their own former staff, and the overall scientific data provided by the IPCC as well as a litany of other eminent scientific organisations, at least one of company’s directors was reported as having been personally present in Woodside’s corporate box at the Midnight Oil concert.
For the record, at the time of writing, apart from Richard Goyder, Woodside’s other directors are Larry Archibald, Frank C. Cooper, Swee Chen Goh, Christopher M. Haynes, Ian Macfarlane, Ann Pickard, Sarah Ryan, Gene T. Tillbrook and Ben Wyatt.
Alongside O’Neill in Woodside’s executive leadership team are Mark Abbotsford, Tony Cudmore, Andy Drummond, Julie Fallon, Shaun Gregory, Daniel Kalms, Shiva McMahon, Matthew Ridolfi and Graham Tiver. Woodside can spout whatever they want, using whatever rhetoric of delay they are able to muster. But they cannot say they did not know.
David Ritter is CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, where he leads a talented and determined team campaigning to fulfil Greenpeace's mission to secure an earth capable of nurturing life in all of its magnificent diversity. Twitter: @David_Ritter
© Alex Westover - Greenpeace