Woodside chief executive Peter Coleman is sitting in his room in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
Said to be the most famous of all Jerusalem’s hotels, with ornate suites and rooms steeped in luxury and comfort, the hotel overlooks the Old City walls, minarets and domes; the ultimate place to stay in the ancient city.
It was Mr Coleman’s birthday, but he was alone, save for a bottle of red wine, and far from in a celebratory mood.
Earlier in the day he had made the decision that Woodside would abandon a proposed $US2.5 billion deal to buy into the giant Leviathan gas deal in Israel.
Negotiations for Woodside to take a stake in the large offshore field had taken nearly two years, but as Mr Coleman told last month’s Energy Club dinner, key aspects of the deal had changed while he was on the plane on his way to Israel.
Referring to the event as one of the “interesting days” during his time leading Woodside, Mr Coleman said a signing ceremony on national television was due to be attended by Israeli President Shimon Peres.
“I’d landed to sign something, and the deal had changed while I was on the plane and I had to say no,” Mr Coleman said.
“I spent the day then sitting in my room at the King David Hotel, looking at the Old City, drinking a bottle of wine by myself and knowing that I was being listened to by others, so no private conversations.”
The Leviathan deal was one of several topics Mr Coleman covered as he took questions during the Energy Club dinner.
Referring to the eavesdropping, Mr Coleman said it was a “reality of our industry”.
“We knew in certain jurisdictions that people were motivated to know what our position was before we actually got into meetings so we would sit around and say, ‘what do we want them to know’.
“In another organisation, we would use codes only to hear that information come back during meetings, so that was the confirmation.”
Asked about life after Woodside — he stepped down as CEO about 12 months ago after 10 years at the helm having joined from Exxon — Mr Coleman said it “looked pretty good”.
“As much as you think you are ready for retirement you are probably not. I write five-year plans and as I’ve gone back through my notes, in 2016 there was a note that said ‘retire in June 2021’; I retired in June 2021.
“You spend the inevitable time in your pyjamas around the house. It’s cool to be able to do it for a while but you move on. You join a golf club and never play and then realise you didn’t really like golf that much before so why do it now?
“I’m an OK golfer, but I didn’t like it that much that I was going to spend my time as an executive doing it, I'm certainly not going to do it in retirement.
“You have to be true to yourself and say what gets you going. Particularly as you get older you must stay active, mentally and physically. I’m pursuing things that allow me to do both.”
Mr Coleman is non-executive chair of Infinite Green Energy — which recently changed its name from Infinite Blue Energy — is on the board of oil services provider Schlumberger, and chair of hydrogen explorer H2EX.
He said he truly believed hydrogen was the fuel of the future.
His backing for blue hydrogen made sense when he was at Woodside because it was a smart use of the company’s assets, but he said he was in transition and favoured green hydrogen.
He said Woodside at the time he joined had become inward looking and consisted of fiefdoms, with staff more concerned about process than outcomes, a company in which people were surviving not thriving and which had to be changed.
He was asked if there was a deal that was left on the table during his time as CEO.
“I had an exit path that I’d mapped: get Scarborough across the line, the BHP deal was always sitting there, we knew it, we had a strategy that we’d wait for BHP to come to us, and it would naturally come.
“That was sitting there, and I thought I’d hand Browse over to the next person and then of course along came COVID. We were within three months of approving Scarborough.
“We knew we had to cut costs, which is not a great thing. You don’t reduce yourself to greatness.”
He said Woodside had been presented with various business approaches over the years.
“We could have had an iron ore company as part of the portfolio at some point, but I’m a big believer in understanding what you do and do it well. Don’t try to be something you’re not,” he said.
“There was another oil and gas company who tried really hard to sell themselves to us, but they were an onshore producer. Again, our skill set was in big projects offshore and LNG and it just didn’t match.”
He said his most difficult day was having to admit that the Pluto project was not going to start as planned.
“I arrived end of May, early June 2011 and the plan then was for Pluto to start in September. We had some fairly vigorous discussions, it didn't get physical, but it got pretty close, up at the Northwest Shelf.
“We realised we had a real problem with the insulation. Basically, on an LNG plant insulation is everything. It's like having a refrigerator without a seal around the door. We had to decide to replace all the insulation on the plant.
“That was a pretty tough day because we had to go to the share market and say how long it was going to take.”
Overall, he said “at the end of the day you can only make decisions based on the information you have at the time, and I think based on that we made pretty good decisions”.