A key to fighting this corrosive corruption is greater transparency in disclosing the vast sums of money the oil and mining industries pay to governments. That’s the consensus among experts and officials around the world--except in the United States, where the Trump administration and the oil majors are fighting to keep these payments cloaked in secrecy.
Those are some of the main take-aways from a Brookings Institution event Monday, “Transparency, anti-corruption and sustainable development: Is progress possible?” The sold-out panel discussion highlighted the launch of two new research projects--one by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation, the other by Brookings, Results for the Future and the Natural Resource Governance Institute--on how to improve payments disclosure and how to better use the data to keep officials from stealing the money.
Earlier this year, Congress and President Trump bucked this anti-corruption movement by repealing the Cardin-Lugar anti-corruption regulation, Sec. 1504 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which would have required U.S.-listed extractives companies to report their payments to governments. Also, the Trump administration is effectively moving to end full U.S. participation in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a voluntary global effort for companies and governments to report the taxes, bonuses, royalties and other payments they respectively pay and receive. Reportedly, one of the reasons for the pullback is that the U.S. oil companies don’t want taxpayers to see how much--or how little--they pay the U.S. government in taxes.
In supporting their legislation, Sen. Lugar and Sen. Ben Cardin (D, Md.), argued that fighting corruption in the oil and gas sectors was an important U.S. national security goal because of corruption’s destabilizing impact on important regions of the world. They said a simple reporting requirement would impose no significant burden on the companies, and would help investors evaluate companies operating in politically risky environments. The big U.S. oil companies countered they would be at a competitive disadvantage, even though most of the other global oil majors now have similar disclosure rules, and sought to limit disclosure to far less specific data.
However, during the Brookings panel, Daniel Kaufmann, president of the NRGI, said experience over the past 15 years with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative shows that to be effective, transparency programs need more detailed payments data, not less, including project-by-project information, as is now called for under the latest EITI standard. The U.S. oil industry has adamantly fought such disclosure, which would have been required under Sec. 1504. Yet European- and Canadian-listed companies are now, under laws inspired by Cardin-Lugar, providing that same information in regular annual reports.
In another sign that the U.S. industry is out of step with global anti-corruption trends, Kaufman said there is “a major movement afoot” to require disclosure of the terms of oil, gas and mining contracts, to ensure the resources haven’t been sold for an artificially low price. Kaufmann called this move “a no-brainer,” yet the U.S. oil giants are resisting it. He chided the industry for its obstinacy: “It’s enough, we’re in the 21st century,” he said. Officially, the American firms say they are worried about disclosing proprietary information. But Ian Gary, director of accountable development finance for Oxfam America, observed, “Rarely is there any proprietary information in contracts.” He noted that Kosmos Energy, a Dallas-based international oil exploration company, regularly publishes its payments and contract information. Gary added that in the U.S., Big Oil has thrown up “obstacles and opposition all along the way….The transparency agenda is far from finished.”
The panel also demonstrated that not every big international extractives company shares the Americans’ aversion to fighting corruption through transparency. Australia-based BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining conglomerate, has for some time voluntarily published what it pays to governments on a project-by-project basis, and also discloses the beneficial owners of its projects, instead of hiding them behind shell companies, as other operators do. “To gain public acceptance where we work, trust is at the forefront,” said Geoff Healy, the company’s chief external affairs officer. “They have to trust that we will behave ethically, and that we will give back a fair share of the wealth we create.” He added, “We’re not doing it just to be nice. It’s an absolute imperative for us.”
Jay Branegan is a Senior Fellow at The Lugar Center.