Thursday 4 July 2024

Under current senior management has the Australian Bureau of Meteorology become a cheap servant of international mining giants?


Rick Morton writing in The Saturday Paper, 29 June - 5 July 2024:

Bureau of Meteorology executives stared down an internal revolt from their own forecasters to create a “tailored” service for Woodside Energy’s shipping operation at its multibillion-dollar Scarborough gas facility on Western Australia’s Burrup Peninsula, insiders say.

The service was unusual in that the BoM’s internal commercial services team – which usually handles fee-for-service corporate requests – rejected the job due to a lack of staff. The commercial project was then handballed to the agency’s aviation division.

Although the Bureau of Meteorology has an aviation division forecaster looking after northern Western Australia, producing aerodrome forecasts for dozens and dozens of mine sites with fly-in fly-out workforces, Woodside’s dock in WA, where gas is loaded for transport to mostly foreign markets, has nothing to do with air travel.

What we really hated – and we were really vehemently against it, and they just basically totally ignored us – was that they’ve also got us doing a warning service for Woodside petroleum where they load the ships with gas,” a senior meteorologist tells The Saturday Paper.

It has nothing to do with aviation. And it’s been our argument all along that that forecaster who’s looking after northern Western Australia, he’s supposed to drop everything and send these very specific warnings to Woodside that there’s a wind gust coming in that might affect your operations.

And this is 24 hours a day, basically, over the summer when there are storms around.”

The BoM has multiple divisions under its new structure and the forecasters who produce updates for the general public work under the banner of National Production. Aviation Weather Services is a separate division but the organisation draws talent from the same pool of meteorologists, which it is also responsible for training via its accelerated one-year graduate program in Melbourne....

Since Dr Andrew Johnson joined the bureau as chief executive in 2016, the number of forecaster positions across weather, floods and bushfires has grown by just five roles.

When meteorologists in aviation saw the original contract for the Woodside Energy project, they were aghast. It was worth about $30,000 when the contract was signed in 2020. It is not clear how much the agency currently charges the resource giant for the same service.

It was pretty insignificant, which just made us angrier, because we didn’t want to do it in the first place,” a meteorologist says.

We didn’t think the bureau should have anything to do with fossil fuel companies, quite frankly.”

Airlines pay tens of millions of dollars each year for similar BoM expertise, although they also employ their own meteorologists in recognition of the critical role weather plays in the conduct of their business. Qantas, for example, has a team of six working rolling shifts covering 24/7 operations. Woodside Energy Group, which recorded a net after-tax profit of US$1.7 billion last year, employs metocean engineers crucial for offshore exploration but has no such dedicated team of meteorologists.

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Meteorology told The Saturday Paper the agency “fully and separately recovers the cost of providing tailored services to its resources sector and aviation customers” but conceded the workforce demands of its commercial work affect the whole organisation.

The meteorological and other services provided by the Bureau to its fee for service customers in most cases build upon services created for the public,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

As such, they draw on a very wide range of Bureau capability. Without exception, the cost of elaborating, or tailoring, those services is fully recovered from the customer receiving the tailored services.”

Under the Meteorology Act 1955, which governs the BoM, there is a stipulation that the agency’s functions must be performed “in the public interest generally” and in particular for the purposes of the Defence Force, navigation, shipping, aviation and “primary production, industry, trade and commerce”. Nothing forced the BoM to bid for the Woodside contract, however.

They’re paying pennies to a stretched organisation … it’s a drop in the ocean for Woodside, but it costs us a great deal more in work hours, staff morale and eventually quality.”

In its annual report from last year, the agency crowed about how Woodside Energy “selected the Bureau to provide a suite of critical meteorological services following a competitive tender process”.

This success is testament to the Bureau’s meteorological skills, customer support capability and deep industry expertise, honed over decades of service delivery to the resources sector,” it said.

This continues the long-standing partnership between Woodside and the Bureau, with both organisations gaining significant value from working closely together.

Weather is highly impactful for Woodside. With many operating assets in exposed locations and vulnerable to hazardous weather, timely and accurate weather forecasts are key to Woodside’s operational success and the safety of their staff.”

Similarly, the BoM was enthusiastic about its partnership with Rio Tinto after it “started providing Rio Tinto’s Operational Excellence Team with logistics forecasts, particularly tailored rainfall information, aimed at enhancing operational efficiency”.

Facilitated by the Bureau’s accurate predictions, Rio Tinto reported significant efficiency improvements following a few rainfall events in early 2023,” it said.

A direct economic impact of approximately $6 million has been associated with the Bureau’s services, as validated by Rio Tinto, over 3 distinct weather events confirming the significant value delivered.”

There is no doubt obligations are imposed on the Bureau of Meteorology by its governing legislation, but senior forecasters who have worked at the agency for decades query whether management needs to be quite so proactive about hawking the skills of overworked staff to the resources sector as the climate crisis grows.

It would cost Woodside at least half a million dollars a year to stand up a 24/7 warning service through summer, but probably close to millions of dollars, and they’re paying pennies to a stretched organisation for the privilege,” a meteorologist says.

Either way, it’s a drop in the ocean for Woodside, but it costs us a great deal more in work hours, staff morale and eventually quality. It’s gone downhill so much since I joined. At the time, I believe the Bureau had the highest retention of staff of any section of the federal government and we’re at the stage now where there is so much unhappiness, morale is so low. In aviation, they’re struggling to hold on to people.”

The BoM recently withdrew its specialist Sydney Airport Meteorological Unit (SAMU) from service, despite considerable protest by airlines, ground support companies and the airport itself, and blended its role with the broader aviation division.

Management argued the forecasts could be done by the Brisbane Aviation Forecasting Centre, which historically has been responsible for forecasting from the Cocos Islands north-west of WA, across the northern half of Australia and down the Queensland coast.

Brisbane now handles half of New South Wales, down the coastline, taking in Sydney, while the rest of the state is managed by the Melbourne Aviation Forecasting Centre.

The eastern half of NSW contains terrible weather generally, and the Sydney basin, which is a huge amount of work. So the bureau, in their wisdom, a few years ago decided to close the Sydney Airport Meteorological Unit,” a forecaster says.

And there was a huge uproar amongst Sydney Airport operations and air traffic and the airlines, because you had all of these highly experienced people and Sydney Airport is really difficult to forecast. They are so angry if anything interrupts their flow. It’s a huge job.”

Meteorologists warned management at the bureau Sydney Airport was not like any other airport. Fog is a huge problem and wind speed and strength is critical. Closing runways in Sydney causes delays across the national network and fog had the potential to reroute international flights that land in the early morning, costing airlines hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Management didn’t listen.

So the airlines get pretty angry when the forecast goes amiss, and it’s gone amiss a lot more since SAMU disappeared. And that’s not blaming the forecasters; they just have too much bloody work to do.”

These changes have made meteorologists particularly incensed by the fact the aviation division is now being used to do contract work for the resources sector. In all, the Bureau of Meteorology provides services to 32 fossil fuel clients. [my yellow highlighting]

One of these is Santos, which has operations in the Bayu-Undan gas field, located within the territorial waters of Timor-Leste, the control of which has reverted exclusively to Timor-Leste following a maritime borders treaty decision in late 2017.

Although the BoM provides forecasting expertise and equipment to Pacific nations under the auspices of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, its activities in the gas fields outside Australia are entirely on behalf of Santos.

We’re also doing forecasts for the planes flying around the Timor gas field between Australia and Dili and a forecast for Dili as well,” says a bureau meteorologist who spoke on condition of anonymity.

I’m not sure who pays for that but, again, we don’t have any equipment there. It’s a really hard place to forecast, so we’d rather not be doing that either.”

Coincidentally, the bureau’s Brisbane office is now located in the Santos building.

There is a fine line between providing a critical service for the Australian economy and becoming cheerleaders for certain parts of it,” a forecaster says.

Many of us see it as a particular issue where the organisation is not healthy. We are not flourishing at all, actually, and the weather conditions that lead to our overwork are growing worse every year because of climate change.”

In late 2021, when Woodside announced it would pursue the $16.5 billion investment in the Scarborough gas project off WA’s northern coast, it estimated the total carbon dioxide emissions from the project would soar past 800 million tonnes.

However, a report by the global firm Climate Analytics later found that when all “associated and interlinked projects” were included in the equation, these emissions would top 1.37 billion tonnes over three decades. In all, that is almost three times the total annual emissions produced by Australia.

That’s what we’re breaking our backs for,” a senior meteorologist says.

Full article can be read at:


Financial status of major resource corporations mentioned in the Morton article.

Santos Limited is an international petroleum and gas exploration, production & supply corporation with interests in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Timor Sea, South-East Asia, the United States & United Kingdom. Having a 2023 full year sales revenue of US$5.889 billion, underlying net profit after tax of US$1.423 billion and free cash flow of US$2.128 billion. It will come as no surprise that its last published Tax Contribution Disclosure (31.12.22) revealed that despite declaring a net profit in the millions, Santos Limited paid no corporate tax in that 2022 reporting period courtesy of Australia's generous corporate taxation policies. [Santos Limited Annual Report 2023]

Rio Tinto Group is a multinational metals & mining corporation based in London UK & Melbourne Australia, with interests in Australia, USA, Canada, Iceland, Madagascar, Mongolia, New Zealand & South Africa. Having a 2023 annual consolidated sales revenue of $54.0 billion, profit after tax of $10.1 billion and free cash flow of $7.7 billion. Corporate tax paid in Australia amounted to $4.1 billion. [Rio Tinto Group Annual Report 2023]

Woodside Energy Group Ltd is an multinational petroleum exploration and production company with its head office in Perth along with five other offices in Australia and, offices in the UK, USA, Canada, Mexico, Africa, the Caribbean & Asia Pacific. Having a 2023 annual operating revenue of US$13.9 billion, underlying net profit after tax of US$3.3 billion and a free tax flow of US$560 million. Income tax expense in 2023 US$653 million. [Woodside Energy Annual Report 2023

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