Australia’s oil and gas regulator criticised after chief hands out environmental ‘excellence’ awards at industry dinner

The outgoing head of Australia’s offshore oil and gas regulator has helped hand out awards to fossil fuel companies, including Santos, Inpex and Beach Energy, prompting criticism the body could be seen as “too close” to industry.

Stuart Smith, chief executive of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (Nopsema), attended an industry conference dinner in Brisbane on Wednesday and assisted in handing out environmental and safety awards.

The “environmental project excellence” award was given to Inpex for its oil spill response model and Beach Energy for a 3D seismic survey of marine life in the Bass Strait.

Santos received a safety project excellence award for its road safety program.

The dinner was part of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (Appea) conference.

Ian Davies, chair of Appea and chief executive of oil and gas company Senex Energy, praised Smith and thanked him for his work as the head of the regulator.

Mark Ogge, principal advisor at The Australia Institute, was at the event and said he was “shocked” the regulator “felt comfortable” making the appearance and that it could be perceived as being “cosy” with industry.

“Regulators being too close to the industry and their lobbyists is a classic indicator of industry capture,” Ogge said.

“The regulator is meant to be making tough decisions that may be against the commercial interests of oil and gas companies in order to protect the community and the environment.

“They’re meant to be the cop on the beat.”

A spokesperson for the regulator said Nopsema “has a function to promote and advise on health and safety, as well as integrity and environmental management matters” and that its representatives routinely appeared at industry functions.

“NOPSEMA’s CEO Stuart Smith announced publicly in March that he would not be seeking to have his contract renewed when it expires in September this year,” they said in a statement.

“In light of this, he was contacted by APPEA and asked to attend the conference dinner so that his work over the last eight years could be acknowledged.

“He was also asked to hand out some awards while he was on stage. He had no role in the selection of the award winners.”

The spokesperson said Smith’s attendance, which was paid for by Nopsema, was “not unusual” and that the regulator “does not accept invitations to events from individual titleholders or companies”.

Also in attendance at Wednesday’s dinner were the Western Australian deputy premier Roger Cook, the Queensland Liberal National party MPs Pat Weir and Trevor Watts, and the Labor MP James Madden.

They were among numerous political leaders and dignitaries who have attended the conference since it began on Monday.

The Norwegian ambassador to Australia, Paul Gulleik Larsen, was there for the opening of the conference on Tuesday, as was the former Coalition foreign minister Julie Bishop, who appeared on a panel with the former Labor foreign minister Stephen Smith.

The federal resources minister, Keith Pitt, also addressed the conference, saying the industry “could not be tied up by bureaucratic red tape” that would “[delay] construction timeframes, costing billions and endangering our energy security”.

“This includes unnecessary regulation and things like scope three emissions,” Pitt said. “I’ll make our position on this very clear: take into account scope one and two emissions on projects but not scope three.”

Scope three emissions are indirect emissions that occur up and down a company’s value chain, such as the burning of oil and gas by end consumers.

Labor’s shadow resources minister, Madeleine King, appeared in a pre-recorded message on Thursday where she said the industry “absolutely” had a future and praised it for taking steps to decarbonise “long before the government”.

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