DARWIN, AAP – A gas company exploring the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin has denied any wrongdoing over its links to a Russian billionaire on Australia’s sanctions list.
Origin Energy says it will comply with any directions from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade concerning Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
Mr Vekselberg is understood to own 16 per cent of Falcon Oil & Gas, Origin Energy’s joint venture partner in the gas-rich basin.
Origin executive Tim O’Grady on Friday told a Senate inquiry the company had contacted DFAT and was awaiting instructions on what action to take in relation to the billionaire.
“I want to be very clear that the joint venture is between Origin and Falcon. It has nothing to do with Mr Vekselberg,” he said.
“We have no relationship at all. There is an interest by Mr Vekselberg but it is a passive interest.”
Mr O’Grady said the project was financed and controlled by Origin and the Russian’s interest represented about four per cent.
Origin became aware of US sanctions against Mr Vekselberg in 2018 and took action to distance itself from him.
The company also “promptly” contacted DFAT when the Australian government imposed sanctions against Mr Vekselberg last week amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, saying it was awaiting advice.
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said many Australians would be alarmed Mr Vekselberg had gotten his “tentacles” into the project.
“Men like Mr Vekselberg sit in the background and take benefit without any of the accountability,” she said.
Mr O’Grady said Origin also had concerns about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and any role the oligarch may play.
“(But) the fact is we are listed companies. Falcon is listed in Canada and Origin doesn’t have any control over its register,” he said.
He also said it would be years before the company’s Beetaloo project generated revenue and if it started producing gas it would be under a different financial structure that may not involve Mr Vekselberg.
“We believe we’ve done the right thing and I assure you whatever we are advised to do by DFAT and the Australian government, we will very happily comply with in full,” he said.
DFAT said it was still working to unravel Mr Vekselberg’s complex business structures, including his links to Origin.
Asked why Australia hadn’t sanctioned the Russian when the US did, DFAT first assistant secretary Andrew Walter said the countries had different objectives and action was taken when it was in the national interest to do so.
Senator Hanson-Young alleged the Morrison government’s ongoing grant announcements for the Beetaloo Basin development were pushing the value of Mr Vekselberg’s companies’ share prices up, to which Mr Walter replied that it would be difficult for DFAT to prove the link.
DFAT also confirmed that Origin and Falcon’s exploration permits were considered an asset.
The Beetaloo is one of a number of gas fields the federal government wants to develop to help boost the economy and secure Australia’s energy supply.
The plans has caused concern among many Territorians, who fear it could jeopardise efforts to meet the nations’s emissions reduction target and contaminate groundwater.
The inquiry is focused on the Morrison government’s use of taxpayer funds to provide grants to gas companies for exploration and infrastructure.