Adani demanded the names of all federal agency scientists reviewing its contentious groundwater plans so it could check if they were “anti-coal” activists, emails obtained under freedom of information show.
The revelation has alarmed CSIRO staff representatives, who said it indicated Adani had “a deliberate strategy” to pressure scientists by searching for personal information it could use to try to “discredit their work”.
Emails obtained under freedom of information by environmental group Lock The Gate show Adani gave the federal environment department five days to provide “a list of each person from the CSIRO and Geoscience Australia involved in the review”.
“Adani simply wants to know who is involved in the review to provide it with peace of mind that it is being treated fairly and that the review will not be hijacked by activists with a political, as opposed to scientific, agenda,” the company told the department on January 25.
A department spokeswoman said it “consulted with CSIRO and Geoscience Australia about Adani’s request” but did not provide the names “as the advice on the plans was received from CSIRO and Geoscience Australia, rather than individuals within those agencies”.
Days before the demand, in a January 21 newspaper article Adani had questioned the independence of a scientist leading a Queensland review into the company’s bird conservation plan because he tweeted from a climate rally nine months earlier.
The ABC revealed in February that Adani last year hired a law firm, AJ & Co, that had drafted a commercial proposal called “Taking the Gloves Off”, in which it vowed to act as the company’s “trained attack dog”.
It proposed a “war” strategy including that Adani “not settle for government department’s dragging out decisions — use the legal system to pressure decision makers”.
In a section called “Play the Man”, it said: “social media is a tool to use against … decision makers. Look for evidence of bias…”
AJ & Co subsequently threatened legal action against activists, moved to bankrupt an Indigenous opponent and applied for ABC journalists’ expenses, phone records and emails under FOI.
But the firm has said it rejected the “Taking The Gloves Off” strategy internally.
In February, Adani told the ABC it “won’t apologise for pursuing our legal rights” but “will not comment in detail on the legal firms we use, their marketing material and any matters where they may represent us or advice we may receive”.
But last week Adani said in a statement it had “never seen, received or endorsed the AJ & Co pages published by the ABC”.
Adani said it had written to the federal environment department in January to request “assurance that individuals involved in any review processes were independent”.
This followed “concerning reports at the time that the state environmental regulator had commissioned a review which constituted individuals who had expressed anti-coal, anti-mining sentiments”, it said.
‘Adani seemed to be suggesting bias’
Sam Popovski, a former livestock scientist and now secretary of the CSIRO staff association, said it was “the first time it’s come to our attention that names of scientists involved in a scientific process have been requested”.
“We’re very concerned on behalf of our scientists at the CSIRO that a big company would go into looking at the personal lives of our members, including trawling their social media, in order to potentially discredit their work,” he said.
“It was clear that Adani seemed to be suggesting bias, or potential bias, way before any of the scientific evidence was actually presented to the department.
“We are concerned that that type of behaviour might be encouraged or used in the future by other commercial entities or parties seeking to achieve a commercial outcome.
“Our scientists just want to get on and do their best job they can and provide the most rigorous, independent scientific advice, without their social media being tracked, and without their personal lives and potentially their families’ personal lives being assessed and interfered with.”
Emails show that 10 days before Adani asked for names, Geoscience Australia’s acting director of groundwater advice and data raised concerns that the company had “actively searched/viewed” his and a colleague’s Linked In profiles.
He reported to a manager that one of his former academic supervisors was an expert witness in a Queensland Land Court challenge against Adani, raising “potential for perceived conflict of interest”.
“Thought I would share this reminder in case a query/challenge comes from left field. I’m perhaps being paranoid,” he said.
The manager replied: “I have no concerns, however I will flag it with the executive here simply so that they are aware.”
Emails also highlight concerns at CSIRO’s senior ranks around relaying its findings of flaws in Adani’s draft plans to federal Environment Minister Melissa Price, who later issued approvals in controversial circumstances.
“This could blow sky high,” CSIRO’s land and water director Jane Coram told colleagues ahead of a March 28 ministerial briefing.
Under the terms of the review of Adani’s groundwater plans, it was not to be provided with information directly from CSIRO and Geoscience Australia.
But on January 7, the federal environment department agreed to Adani’s request that it provide the names of five CSIRO and Geoscience Australia staff involved in a video conference about groundwater with the department and the company late last year.
Mr Popovski said there did not appear to be “any reason for those names to have been released”.
“The information that both the department and Adani actually need is the comprehensive scientific analysis,” he said.
“If a scientific review is being conducted by CSIRO, there are usually multiple people involved and that science is rigorously reviewed before it is then provided to the department.
“So in our view, there are very limited circumstances, if any, for names to be released to a commercial entity.
“CSIRO’s brand relies on its integrity and independence, and anything that commercial organisations or the government of the day do to threaten that brand and that trust that it’s established with the Australian community can only be detrimental to the future.”
However, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said he could understand why Adani demanded the names of the scientists.
“I mean they were made to jump through more environmental hoops than perhaps any previous project in the nation and no doubt they wanted to determine that, I suppose, those arguing against their proposals were not some sort of quasi anti-development groups and individuals,” he said.
‘More than a little disturbing’
Lock the Gate campaigner Ellie Smith said: “We saw in the case of the independent review of the black-throated finch that scientists’ names were brought through the mud through the media.”
“So I can imagine that there was a lot of pressure on those individuals within Geoscience Australia and CSIRO.”
Kirsten Lovejoy, a former Greens candidate and long-time policy adviser in the Queensland Environment Department, said she discovered her profile was viewed by an AJ & Co lawyer in March.
“It was more than a little disturbing … they were looking for details about me personally,” she said.
“People who work for various organisations, including the public service, have to adhere to processes and codes that make sure that they operate with integrity.
“To see undue pressure placed on those organisations is particularly outrageous.”
This article was originally published at ABC Online.