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Woodside and the East-Timor Bugging Scandal

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Woodside Energy Group Ltd (formerly Woodside Petreolum Ltd) is an Australian petroleum exploration and production company who worked "hand in glove" with the Australian government to secure the “best possible deal” during the 2004 oil and gas negotiations with the East Timorese Government.

An offshore oil rig with the Woodside Logo foregrounded.

Witness K, a former-ASIS operative, was delegated by the Australian Government to run a bugging operation within an East Timor cabinet office intended to reveal their government’s “bottom line, its negotiating tactics and the competing views of cabinet members.

The result of the negotiations was a 50/50 split of the Greater Sunrise fields, an area of sea 150 kilometres south of East Timor and 450 kilometres north-west of Darwin. The deal struck was described as a “boon for the joint venture of multinationals, led by Woodside, seeking to exploit the Timor Sea.”

In the aftermath of the negotiations a number of Australian politicians went on to work for Woodside. Dr. Ashton Calvert, who served as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs during the period of negotiations, retired in January of 2005. The following month, Dr. Calvert joined the board of Rio Tinto, before then joining the board of Woodside in August.

Former Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, who ordered ASIS to listen in to the negotiations in 2004, went on to work as a petroleum lobbyist following his retirement from politics in 2008. In 2011 Mr. Downer took on a consulting role for Woodside, meeting with then East-Timorese President, Xanana Gusmao, to discuss a gas pipeline. Mr. Downer’s appointment to Woodside prompted Witness K to publicly reveal the bugging operation.

Callum Foote for Michael West Media reports that Woodside used false deep-sea modelling as evidence that a pipeline to to East Timor was not possible as a means of securing helium and petroleum reserves in Australia.

Former National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party, Gary Gray, also joined Woodside, first as an advisor and eventually as an executive board member a year after resigning from his role in politics.

In 2018, crossbench senator, Rex Patrick, questioned if prosecutors had deliberately delayed the prosecution of Witness K to avoid a diplomatic incident while a new Timor Sea Treaty was being finalised:

“The AFP began its investigation on 10 February 2014. One year later, on 18 February 2015, the AFP gave a brief of evidence to the commonwealth director of public prosecutions…The result – nothing. Zip. Nada. Then in May 2018, three years later, and just weeks after the joint standing committee on treaties finally held public hearings on a new Timor Sea treaty, the CDPP filed charges.”

In 2019 Mr. Patrick stated that Mr. Downer and Woodside wanted to “force” East Timor into giving up their oil revenue:

“The bottom line here is that Downer (and Woodside) wanted to force East Timor, one of the poorest countries in the world, to surrender most of the revenues from Greater Sunrise, revenue it could have used to deal with its infant mortality rate – currently 45 out of 1,000 children in East Timor don’t live past the age of one,” Patrick told parliament. “And yet our plan was to deprive them of oil revenue.”

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