Charges laid after ‘fake gas leak’ forces evacuation of Woodside’s Perth headquarters

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A 49-year-old Floreat woman has been charged after thousands of Woodside employees were evacuated from the company’s headquarters in Perth due to a faux gas leak allegedly organised by those campaigning against its $50 billion Burrup Hub projects.

A dozen firefighters swarmed the building to investigate the smell just after 10am on Thursday, understood to have been caused by non-toxic stench gas allegedly released by Disrupt Burrup Hub protester Kristen Morrissey.

Disrupt Burrup Hub protestor Kristen Morrissey outside Woodside’s headquarters on Thursday.Credit: Jesinta Burton

The substance, typically used by mining companies for an emergency, forced Woodside’s workers to flee across a nearby pedestrian bridge and to an adjacent park.

Morrissey also allegedly used yellow smoke flares during the evacuation, and planted them outside the building’s entry, to symbolise the emissions from Woodside’s gas projects.

Police officers arrived a short time later, escorting Morrissey away from the building and into a police car as she called on those around her to “act now”.

Morrissey has since been charged with acts creating false apprehension as to the existence of threats or danger, and will face Perth Magistrates Court on Friday.

The area was cordoned off by authorities, with the stench lingering for several hours.

WA Police confirmed officers from the Tactical Response team’s Bomb Response Unit examined and removed the source of the gas alongside government chemists.

The probe is ongoing, but police said at the time the incident did not pose any ongoing danger to the community.

A Woodside spokeswoman confirmed employees had been mustered to safety by emergency services and that the company would be referring the matter to authorities.

“The safety of our people is Woodside’s highest priority,” the spokeswoman said.

“We respect people’s right to protest safely and legally, but it is unacceptable for protest action to put our people’s safety at risk. Woodside will be referring this matter to the relevant authorities.”

She said police gave the all-clear for workers to return to their desks about four and a half hours after the evacuation.

The fake gas on Thursday is the latest in a long series of actions against Woodside and its plans to prolong and expand gas production on the Burrup Peninsula near Karratha in WA’s north-west, where its two gas export plants are located.

In late 2021 Woodside committed to the $18 billion Scarborough project that will see the capacity of the Pluto gas export plant doubled.

Woodside staff returning to the company’s headquarters almost two hours after the evacuation.Credit: Jesinta Burton.

The $64 billion company is also considering developing the CO2-rich Browse gas field off the Kimberley coast and piping the gas 1000 kilometres to be processed at its North West Shelf plant next to Pluto. The $31 billion development could extend the life of the NWS plant to 2070.

Pushback against gas export projects is driven by the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide produced cooling the gas to a liquid and the far greater emissions when the gas is burnt by customers.

Woodside’s growth plans are receiving added attention due to fears emissions from its plants risk damaging an adjacent vast expanse of more than one million Indigenous rock art engravings nominated for World Heritage listing.

Thursday’s incident comes one month after two protesters were arrested at Perth Convention Centre for attempting to disrupt a Woodside AGM using stench gas.

It also comes just weeks after high-profile NSW activist Deanna “Violet” CoCo was hit with a $200 fine and a $500 damage bill after spray-painting four yellow Woodside Energy logos across the front of Perth Police Station and attempting to glue herself to the window.

The 32-year-old spent the night behind bars and the next day Magistrate Matthew Walton commended her strong views and reiterated the importance of peaceful protest for a functioning democracy.

In March, Coco had a 15-month jail sentence for blocking traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for a climate protest quashed when it was found NSW police used false information to secure the conviction.

Walton said Coco had gone “too far” and encouraged her to stay within the law.

Disrupt Burrup Hub protestor Kristen Morrissey being escorted from Woodside’s headquarters.Credit: Jesinta Burton

“It’s a fundamental tenet of western democracy, a functioning democracy … it should be supported,” he told the court.

“You don’t have to go too far abroad to see the restrictions on personal freedoms and activism.

“In a lot of regards you should be commended; however, you breached the law.”

On Wednesday, the South Australian Labor government, with the support of the Liberal opposition, passed legislation to increase the maximum fine for disruptive protests from $750 to $50,000 and added the option of imprisonment.

The Disrupt Burrup Hub group made national headlines when it launched in January after protester Joana Partyka sprayed the energy giant’s logo across the perspex covering Frederick McCubbin’s iconic 1889 painting Down on His Luck at the Art Gallery of WA.

The 37-year-old was slapped with a $7500 fine after pleading guilty to the incident.

In 2021, Extinction Rebellion protesters graffitied with climate slogans the pedestrian bridge near Woodside headquarters used on Thursday to evacuate employees.

The prosecution of one activist failed as the police failed to determine who owned the bridge.

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