Australia tribunal sets Sept 22 as date for Chevron LNG dispute hearing

By Lewis Jackson

SYDNEY (Reuters) -The dispute between Chevron and workers at its two liquefied natural facilities (LNG) in Australia will be heard by the industrial relations tribunal on Sept. 22, potentially offering a resolution to strikes which began last Friday.

Chevron is betting on a ruling from the Fair Work Commission to cancel the strikes and force a deal with unions, after saying it no longer expected talks to yield a resolution.

The commission will hold a single hearing at this stage, the office of its President Adam Hatcher told Reuters, declining to say how long it would take the tribunal to rule on the matter.

“The act requires the commission to act as soon as practical, so timeframes are quite tight,” the office said.

Unions had argued for a later hearing date in November, the office added.

In a statement, Chevron said the tribunal’s decision provided “a clear path forward for all parties to resolve an agreement”. The unions did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case will be a landmark test of laws first introduced in June which empower the tribunal to force parties into an agreement they themselves are unable to make.

Chevron opted for this legal route after five days of negotiations with unions representing workers at its Wheatstone and Gorgon facilities broke down last Friday without a deal.

Chevron said on Monday it sees “no reasonable prospect of agreement.”

Hundreds of workers at the facilities, which account for over 5% of global supply, started short strikes on Friday. Two weeks of 24-hour strikes are scheduled from Thursday, although the unions have discretion over how long they actually stop work.

Energy analyst Saul Kavonic said the expedited date could lead unions to strike more aggressively in the days leading up to the hearing.

“It could be protracted, and in the meantime the unions may feel the need to strike more strongly heading into the arbitration process,” he said.

The strikes, and threat of potential supply disruptions from the world’s largest LNG exporter, have raised concerns about prices of the super-chilled fuel ahead of the northern hemisphere winter.

The October Dutch gas contract was trading 0.25 euros higher at 36.65 euros per megawatt hour (MWH) by 0855 GMT, after initially trading lower on Tuesday morning.

Western Australia, where both LNG facilities are located, said on Tuesday it was closely monitoring the situation but had no current plans to intervene in the legal process.

“We continue to urge the parties to work constructively together to find a solution to the industrial dispute,” a government spokesperson said in a statement.

(Reporting by Lewis Jackson in Sydney; Editing by Leslie Adler and Louise Heavens and Miral Fahmy)