Major gas producer uses threat against rights to intimidate opponents

Contributed by Jim Hayes

Woodside Energy is on the warpath. This is one of the biggest gas extraction companies operating in Australia, and it is dead set on launching a major offensive against those campaigning against its operations. But what should raise the most concern is the way in which this is being done.

The company has engaged lawyers to issue threats in the form of letters under the name of CEO Meg O’Neill, threatening intentions to sue damages for business losses incurred. But the real threat is to lock those who are targeted into lengthy and complex legal processes, where it costs a lot of money to defend oneself. Woodside is well cashed up and intends to use this as a weapon against opponents who lack this advantage.

Photo by Lukas Coch: Woodside Energy CEO Meg O’Neill

This is one leg of the offensive, which looks like a strategy aimed at countering a public relations problem in the face of growing concern over carbon emissions and climate change across the Australian community.  

Another involves an unusual demand in the letter that the accused provide all information that might help identify others who might be critical of Woodside and participate in activities against it. This includes all emails, text messages, and comments on social media platforms. An order for this is being sought in the Supreme Court.

This is a fishing exercise and a deliberate attempt to deny basic rights through intimidation, and a misuse of legal process. It should be thrown out of any court.  It may not though. Woodside has friends in high places, and Australians don’t have a constitutional protection of the right to free speech. This is left to an uncertain body of common law.

Bond University Professor of Climate Law, Nicole Rogers said the current threat of civil action for financial compensation from Woodside Energy was the latest attempt to paralyse climate activism.

“These lawsuits are strategic. They’re designed with an end goal, and that is to silence activists,” Professor Rogers said.

Woodside seem to enjoy an unhealthy sympathy from police. How else can you interpret the fact that key target Emil Davey was apprehended near his home at gunpoint, despite obviously not posing a physical threat? This was an act of deliberate intimidation by the police. Davey happens to be a key organiser of protests against the company’s Burrup Hub expansion in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

A lawyer’s letter sent shows that Emil Davey and two others, Joana Partyka and Kristen Morrissey, were sought because they may have been involved in a protest outside Woodside headquarters in Perth. Woodside claims in its letter that it “has suffered loss and damage,” and that it may have “a cause of action” against others not named.

Photo by Aaron Bunch/AAP: Vigil outside Woodside Energy headquarters in Perth

Davey and Partyka are being represented by the Environmental Defenders Office and have said they will not comply with Woodside’s demand for information.

A great deal is made about the violence of protests. This is a beat up because reported at the April event in question, non-flammable, and safe stink bombs there was a release of outside in the street. Woodside is seeking restraining order for those named, to prevent them from participating in future protests and to be charged with conspiracy, if they take part in organising them.

The use of restraining orders in this way has been criticised by lawyers and the Human Rights Law Centre, whose acting legal director has called for them to be cancelled immediately. Its Acting Legal Director, Alice Drury, has called this “a display of extraordinary fragility on the part of Woodside CEO Meg O’Neill,” and continued to say that “she has sought orders that go far beyond what can possibly be justified in a democracy. These orders send the message that people who speak out against multibillion dollar fossil fuel companies, can expect to be intimidated and silenced through court proceedings.”

Human rights experts have attacked the use of these restraining orders, as a misuse of measures meant to protect women from violent abusers. The use to which Woodside is putting them is unprecedented and an abuse. It should be stopped.

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