Putin’s blacklisted oligarch ally to cash in on Morrison government’s gas-led recovery
21 Oct 2020

A Faberge egg-collecting Russian oligarch who the US has hit with financial sanctions is set to benefit from the Morrison government’s gas-led recovery, it can be revealed.

And a mysterious company registered in secrecy-haven Delaware is also in line to reap dividends if one of the key gas basins the government has earmarked for quick development can be successfully fracked.

Viktor Vekselberg, who was sanctioned in 2018 over a number of matters including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Delaware company Longview Petroleum, the ultimate owners of which are not clear, hold substantial stakes in Falcon Oil & Gas, which is involved in developing a fracking project in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo basin.

The Beetaloo basin is one of five gas basins flagged for “unlocking” by the resources minister, Keith Pitt, who has set aside $28.3m to come up with “strategic basin plans” to accelerate their development. The move is part of the prime minister Scott Morrison’s plan to help revive the coronavirus-stricken economy through increased domestic gas production.

Falcon is one of several overseas companies identified as standing to benefit from any gas boom by activist groups Publish What You Pay and the Tax Justice Network, which in a new report raised concerns about opaque ownership structures and the use of tax and secrecy jurisdictions in the sector as a whole.

The company, which is registered in Canada but run from Ireland, owns a little under a fifth of a Beetaloo basin exploration project, the rest of which is owned by the company charged with developing it – Australian energy group Origin Energy.

While Origin has yet to identify how much gas might be available in the exploration area, the sub-basin of which it is part has previously been identified by the NT government as the richest in the territory, containing about 70% of its gas.

Pitt and the energy minister, Angus Taylor, visited the Beetaloo basin over the weekend, with Taylor calling it “a world-class resource that has the potential to drive significant development in the Top End to create local jobs and help Australia remain a world leader in gas”.

Pitt last month committed the government to developing a strategic basin plan for the area, which a spokesman for the minister told Guardian Australia would “establish what resource opportunities are present; how we can accelerate, coordinate, and optimise development; and how this will secure gas supplies for Australian manufacturing and provide jobs for Australian workers and opportunity for Australian businesses”.

However, environment groups and Indigenous traditional landowners have long been concerned about the effect fracking the area might have on the water table.

Indigenous groups, assisted by activist group GetUp, raised concerns about the project at last year’s Origin shareholder meeting and did so again at this year’s AGM on Tuesday.

“Origin has not tried to seek consent for fracking from the traditional owners, and we will never give it,” said Naomi Wilfred, an Alawa traditional owner whose country covers the northern part of the project.

An Origin spokesman said the company worked closely with traditional owners to determine drill sites and was not exploring for gas in the area covered by Wilfred’s claim.

A motion put up by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility calling on Origin to explain its arrangements with Beetaloo’s traditional owners failed, with 88% of votes cast against.

Last year, a South African commission of inquiry investigating bribery and fraud in the country’s government heard allegations from one individual that Falcon offered a South African company a facilities management contract in return for help getting the country’s prime minister to loosen fracking laws.

Falcon’s chief executive, Philip O’Quigley denied the allegations, the Irish Times reported, and the South African inquiry has not made any findings against Falcon.

A Vekselberg-controlled company called Lamesa Holdings owns 16% of Falcon, making it the company’s biggest shareholder. Another Russian businessman, Maxim Mayorets, who was formerly on the board of Vekselberg’s best-known corporate vehicle, Renova, also sits on the Falcon board.

By Ben Butler, The Guardian, 20 October 2020

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