Australia: Ex-PM Scott Morrison accused of ‘bias' in decision on NSW gas field

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An obscure mining company has accused former prime minster Scott Morrison of bias in a court case attempting to overrule a decision he made while secretly sworn in as a resources minister last year.

Last December, Morrison refused Perth-based Asset Energy's application to extend a controversial permit to explore and drill for gas off the NSW coastline, in an area that stretches from Sydney's North Head to Newcastle.

In a filing to the Federal Court appealing the decision, Asset Energy, which owns 85 per cent of the permit, argued that the then "Prime Minister breached the requirements of procedural fairness in that he predetermined the application and the purported decision was infected by actual bias".

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News Corp newspapers revealed over the weekend that Morrison had secretly sworn himself into additional ministerial portfolios, including resources minister, unbeknown to the existing resources minister Keith Pitt. Pitt, who favoured further gas development, allegedly learned of this arrangement last December.

University of Sydney constitutional law expert, Anne Twomey, described having two resources ministers as "very strange". "Going to the Governor General and saying: ‘Hey, appoint me as Minister for Resources', but not telling the Resources Minister, and then not putting out a statement on the federal register of legislation showing that it happened, is just frankly, very, very strange."

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has sought legal advice over Morrison's decision to allegedly secretly swear himself into three ministry positions.

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Gas shortage

Asset Energy was exploring for gas in an area that is located no further than 50km off the NSW coast, and which is known by its title name, Petroleum Exploration Permit 11 or PEP11. PEP11 covers an enormous area of 4574 square kilometres, and runs parallel to NSW's pristine beaches, popular tourist destinations, past some of the country's most expensive residential real estate, and a number of federal electorates, which until the May election were mostly blue-ribbon seats.

In a written statement, Asset Energy executive director, David Breeze, declined to comment on the question of the former government's ministerial arrangements.

"In light of significantly changed circumstances in the international energy market following the war in Ukraine, and the prospect of sustained higher energy prices and gas shortages in Australia, we are urging Federal and NSW governments to reconsider their position and allow limited, safe, and sustainable exploration activity," he said.

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"Gas exploration offshore Newcastle should be part of the solution to the East Coast energy crisis. Our project has the potential to supply 20 years worth of gas for NSW, and we have committed to inject all of our produced gas into the domestic market." Breeze said Asset Energy could deliver gas to the domestic market within two years of completing its well.

The Grattan Institute's energy director Tony Wood, a former Origin Energy executive, said he understood the decision not to extend PEP11's permit was based on environmental concerns, which haven't gone away now that gas is expensive. "The Morrison government was otherwise strongly in favour of new gas developments," said Wood.

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