22 Apr 2021

School children targeted by private investigators Thompson and Clark

From Morning Report, 7:07 am on 22 April 2021

School children from the group School Strike 4 Climate joined a peaceful protest against the oil-exploration company OMV in New Plymouth a year ago, only weeks after unprecedented numbers joined their 27 September school strike marches around New Zealand. Public concern about climate change had never been so great. These were peaceful, democratic protests.

But a two-year investigation has found that they and other climate change groups were targets of the private investigation firm Thompson and Clark, paid by clients from the oil and gas industry.

The investigation reveals that a major focus of Thompson and Clark in 2019 and 2020 – years of storms, floods, forest fires and marching school children – was monitoring and helping to counter citizen groups concerned about climate change.

Protest sign for today's school strike for climate change

A photo of a sign from the climate strike in 2019. The photo was not taken in New Plymouth. Photo: Yadana Saw

Thompson and Clark’s clients included a range of large greenhouse gas emitting industries, including many of the oil and gas exploration and drilling companies in New Zealand and the industry lobby group, the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand (PEPANZ). It has targeted climate change campaigners belonging to School Strike 4 Climate, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion and local Oil Free groups.

Information about Thompson and Clark’s clients and anti-environmental activities was provided confidentially by company insiders who say they disapprove of the private investigation company.

Operations against these groups were run by Thompson and Clark’s collection manager, the former long-term New Zealand Security Intelligence Service officer, as revealed by Radio New Zealand yesterday. The officer, known only as Gerry, moved to Thompson and Clark ten years ago, after 30 years with the NZSIS.

State services commissioner Peter Hughes strongly criticised interference with the right to freedom of expression, association and right to protest  in 2018 following a State Services Commission (SSC) inquiry into Thompson and Clark. The SSC inquiry was launched after the company was caught spying on Christchurch insurance claimants (Southern Response) and Greenpeace.

Thompson and Clark’s largest climate change-related client in the two years since the SSC report was the Austrian oil and gas company OMV, New Zealand’s largest oil producer. Thompson and Clark operations against climate change protesters included:

  • July 2019 Environmental Protection Agency hearing in Dunedin on offshore exploration drilling by OMV
  • September 2019 Petroleum Conference at Queenstown’s Millennium Hotel
  • October 2019 GasNZ Industry Forum at Christchurch’s Rydges Hotel
  • December 2019 School Strike-Greenpeace protest at OMV offices, New Plymouth
  • January 2020 OMV drilling off the Otago coastlines
  • March-April 2020 OMV drilling in the Maui field off Taranaki.

For each of these events, Thompson and Clark worked secretly in the background to undermine the climate change campaigners. It monitored the groups in advance – including their organising and planning sites on Facebook – and provided a series of "intelligence" reports to the companies. The intelligence was then used to try to thwart their protest, sources say.  Knowing the protest plans in advance allowed counter measures such as targeted use of security guards and police.

By the end of the Maui field drilling in April last year, New Zealand was in Covid-19 lockdown. For the rest of that year drilling operations ceased and industry events were cancelled or held on-line.

Russel Norman, executive director of Greenpeace says "climate activism is essential if we’re going to save the planet from climate catastrophe. Oil companies might not like it, but climate activism is essential for changing tack."

He felt it was shocking that OMV was hiring Thompson and Clark against its critics. "Here we have a company, whose largest shareholder is the Austrian Government, employing a company with a history of anti-democratic activities in New Zealand."

"Why is it acceptable that a company owned by the Austrian Government is hiring private investigators with a history of interfering with climate activists and suppressing democratic protest? It speaks to the ethical framework of OMV that they thought it was acceptable to use Thompson and Clark."

OMV New Zealand spokesperson Jane Gower said that "OMV NZ, like many organisations, uses freely available public information to assess activities that might impact our operations" She said "We respect the right of peaceful, legal protest but will take the appropriate steps when necessary if our people or businesses are under threat."

A key focus of climate campaigners in 2019 and 2020 was a giant floating drilling rig called COSL Prospector that was leased by OMV to drill exploration wells off the Otago and Taranaki coastlines. The Labour-led government had banned new offshore oil and gas drilling in April 2018 but companies like OMV were allowed to continue with their existing exploration licences. OMV hired Thompson and Clark to monitor the campaigners.

A drilling rig commissioned by oil giant OMV arrives in New Zealand to drill 12 exploratory drilling wells off the coast of Taranaki. Credit: Geoff Reid

 A drilling rig commissioned by oil giant OMV arrives in New Zealand to drill 12 exploratory drilling wells off the coast of Taranaki. Photo: Supplied / Greenpeace / Geoff Reid

Insiders say OMV staff received daily intelligence reports from Thompson and Clark about the climate change groups and their protest plans. This was apparently based on monitoring of climate group planning sites on Facebook. The company then worked with OMV staff to try to evade or minimise the protests, including providing the names of protest leaders to be given "retrospective trespass notices."

Those issued with trespass notices included Dunedin grandmother Rosemary Penwarden, from the group Oil Free Otago. "I couldn’t believe it," she said. "One of the world’s richest companies trespassing me from their offshore oil rigs and 17 other places around the country. Were they trying to intimidate? It smacked of desperation."

Thompson and Clark’s first OMV-related target was an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearing at Dunedin’s Distinction Hotel in July-August 2019. OMV had applied to the EPA for a discharge consent for the drilling rig Prospector’s exploration in the Great South Basin seas. A sizeable number of local people from Oil Free Otago protested outside the hearing, objecting that the application took no account of climate change. Thompson and Clark monitored the group in advance and during the hearing, according to a sensitive source.

Thompson and Clark was present again in October 2019 when about 30 members of the group Extinction Rebellion protested outside the GasNZ Industry Forum at Christchurch’s Rydges Hotel.  OMV New Zealand managing director Gabriel Selischi was a speaker at the forum. and Thompson and Clark ran an operation to avoid him being a target of protest.

But the main Thompson and Clark operations were in 2020 when the floating rig COSL Prospector drilled first off Otago and then Taranaki. The private investigators worked intensely trying to uncover the protesters’ plans – with the daily reporting to OMV – and then devised counter plans and liaised with police to try to avoid or thwart the protests. 

During these months a drilling rig support ship was occupied by climate change campaigners in Timaru, the OMV headquarters in New Plymouth was circled by School Strike students and other groups, and land and on-water protests occurred.

In the end OMV drilled only one exploratory well in the Great South Basin in January 2020 (Tawhaka-1), to keep its exploration licence live. It then sailed up to Taranaki and drilled only one well in the Maui field (Toutouwai-1) in March-April before the Covid-19 epidemic stopped further drilling, and protesting. The drilling rig then left New Zealand waters, returning to its owners in China.

Various senior OMV staff were aware of and worked closely with Thompson and Clark during the monitoring and countering of the protest groups.

Another Thompson and Clark operation was the annual Petroleum Conference held at Queenstown’s Millenium Hotel from 26 September -1 October 2019, where the company was hired to counter the expected protests. The organisers, industry lobby group PEPANZ, called the event "New Zealand’s premier and largest upstream oil and gas event". The group Oil Free Otago called it a "climate crime scene". The protest consisted of a few dozen people standing outside the hotel holding placards with messages such as "There is no Planet B". But Thompson and Clark turned the event into a security operation, treating the citizen groups as threats that needed to be countered.

PEPANZ had initially tried to keep the location of the annual conference secret, to evade protests. When the climate change groups learned that the conference was being held in Queenstown, PEPANZ was furious. The lobby group got Thompson and Clark to conduct an investigation which tried (unsuccessfully) to identify who had helped the climate groups.

Some climate change campaigners spoken to by Radio New Zealand described surveillance such as cars watching private homes, similar to what the ex-Exclusive Brethren experienced, but it was not possible to confirm this.

A generic photo of a man in his car doing surveillance with a camera.

A generic image of a man in a parked car using a camera to do surveillance. Photo: 123rf

Thompson and Clark has actively sought business in this area. The December 2018 SSC inquiry into the company found that the company "provided secretariat functions for the Taranaki Oil and Gas Security group (TOGS), a group led by Thompson and Clark."

The inquiry also drew attention to the Minerals Exploration Joint Intelligence Group, a grouping of government departments "set up to coordinate intelligence provided to the various agencies involved in enforcing the laws regarding offshore petroleum and mineral exploration." Thompson and Clark "attended meetings with officials as a key participant and regularly provided intelligence material to MEJIG." With this implicit government endorsement, it was easy for the company to promote its services and the supposed threat from "issue motivated groups".

Citing its MEJIG role, Thompson and Clark wrote in 2017 that it had spent five years countering opposition to deep sea oil and gas exploration. "We have provided threat, risk assessment and security planning for each year’s operation on behalf of our clients.... [against] a highly organised and motivated threat." The threat included school children and grandparents, while their efforts to bring attention to climate change were being actively thwarted and undermined.