Where will the money flow from Gorgon, our biggest ever mining project?
Energy giants called to explain billions in tax havens
To describe Gorgon as another super-sized resources project in Western Australia does not do justice to the scale and scope of the venture.
When the taps are turned on later this year and liquefied natural gas begins to flow, Australia will be on a path to surpass Qatar as the world’s biggest exporter of gas by 2018.
LNG will leapfrog coal to become the nation’s second-biggest export behind iron ore, HSBC has forecast. Gas will be shipped to China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and India.
The numbers – and the stakes for Australia’s national wealth – are vast.
Chevron, the owner-operator of Gorgon, has promised royalties of $40 billion over 30 years and the Abbott government is counting on a $65 billion a year boost to GDP over that period and the creation of 3500 full-time jobs.
Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane told a fossil fuels industry conference in May that Gorgon, and Chevron’s $US29 billion Wheatstone and North West Shelf projects and Queensland’s Curtis and Gladstone projects, would help insulate Australia from falling export revenues from coal and iron ore.
“Although the LNG plants are largely foreign-owned, so profits from the plants will go abroad, the economy will be supported by growth in tax revenues, as LNG exporters pay both corporate tax and state royalties,” HSBC analysts wrote.
But there is already an emerging unease about whether the Australian Tax Office will get its fair slice from the multinationals exploiting Australia’s most significant gas resource.
Ongoing research into Gorgon and the accounting methods of its three main owners, Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil has uncovered worrying signs. A study by the International Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents mariners and workers on the project, has uncovered Bermuda-based subsidiaries that appear to have been incorporated as part of the project.
They include Chevron LNG Shipping Company Limited and Chevron Australia Transport Pty Ltd.
Between them, Chevron and ExxonMobil reported a total of $US87 billion in so-called unrepatriated profits – or money that will not be transferred back to the United States where it would be taxed at 35 per cent. The bulk of offshore earnings for those companies are held in secrecy jurisdictions from Bermuda to Switzerland and Singapore.
According to the ITF’s senior researcher Jason Ward, Chevron Australia Holdings, the division behind Gorgon, has issued $2.2 billion in shares to a parent company in Delaware in the US. That company’s parent is likely to be headquartered in Bermuda, Mr Ward believes – although details are scarce.
None of this will surprise Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan. The ATO has been locked in a protracted court case over $322 million in unpaid taxes between 2004 and 2008 – a time when Chevron had a near $5 billion stake in Caltex.
The company has displayed all the hallmarks of Mr Jordan’s red-flag area of concern, transfer pricing, in which multinationals saddle Australian operations with hefty debts which require huge flows out of the country to service interest bills.
Appearing in front of the Senate’s corporate tax avoidance inquiry on April 8, Mr Jordan said of transfer pricing in general: “It looks contrived, it looks artificial and it is shifting profit out of Australia.”
He then addressed the Chevron case specifically: “Not to oversimplify it, basically, there was a borrowing at 2 per cent by the United States parent and an on-lending at 9 per cent. As I understand it, there were something like over 30 expert reports. There were 11 barristers in the case. It took years to get up.”
In its latest accounts, Chevron in Australia recorded a $1.8 billion interest bill to its US parent. In the same year it paid no company tax in Australia and claimed a $5.7 million tax refund cheque from the ATO.
Mr Ward said a $US17 billion cost blow-out on Gorgon – from $US37 billion to $US54 billion – is another potential tax windfall. Construction costs can be claimed back as tax credits once the revenue from Gorgon begins to flow this year.
“The amount of related-party transactions between Chevron’s own entities is phenomenal,” he said.
Chevron’s managing director in Australia, Roy Krzywosinski, recently complained taxes were too high in Australia and taxes would become an increasing concern as Gorgon and Wheatstone entered production.
“As we move forward in operations the ongoing challenge will change more on the tax side,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Chevron declined to comment on Wednesday other than to say the company abides by all laws in the countries in which it operates.