The Cable

Greasy Palms Dept.: Congress To Repeal Oil and Mining Anti-Corruption Regulation

The same week former Exxon chief Rex Tillerson is expected to become secretary of state.

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On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to repeal an obscure anti-corruption rule aimed at the oil and gas industry before the rule even took effect. Now oil majors like ExxonMobil or Chevron won’t have to disclose payments they make to foreign governments while chasing resource deals around the world.

The rule, put forth by the Security and Exchange Commission in 2012, requires oil and mining companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to disclose payments made to governments around the world for access to natural resources. It covers U.S. oil giants and foreign oil companies like Shell and BP.

But it sparked fierce and years-long court battles between industry groups and transparency organizations. Soon-to-be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson fought it for years while he ran Exxon.

The final iteration of the rule, which the SEC released in June, 2016, wasn’t slated to go into effect until 2018.

Proponents of the rule say it’s a desperately needed-measure to root out corruption, particularly in “resource-cursed” countries from Nigeria to Venezuela. “It’s really a critical anti-corruption provision for an industry that’s been historically notorious for corruption,” Zorka Milin of industry transparency watchdog Global Witness told Foreign Policy.

Critics, including the oil and mining industries, say the regulation is ineffective and ultimately counterproductive. “The biggest problem is it provides really bad unintended consequences,” said Christopher Guith of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied against it. He said the rule inadvertently forces companies to disclose trade secrets and bidding estimates, which competitors can use to undercut them.

U.S. oil and mining companies are already members of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global corruption watchdog group that pushes transparency in resource-rich countries. (While Exxon sits on the EITI board, it came under fire in 2015 for not releasing its U.S. tax data to the group on time). Guith cited the EITI as a model of oil and mining regulation, unlike the SEC rule, which he said was “unnecessarily broad.”

He also said the SEC rule puts Western firms at a disadvantage when competing with less transparent rivals. “It pushes Western companies out and what you’re left with is state-owned oil companies who you could argue are the least transparent in the world,” he said, citing state-owned companies in Russia and China.

Industry groups also say it’s too costly. The SEC itself estimates the industry would have to spend between $239 million and $700 million to comply with the rule initially, and between $91 million and $591 million annually from there. (For context, Exxon’s annual revenue in 2015 was $268.8 billion.)

Nonsense, retort proponents on both sides of the aisle. Companies in the EU, Norway, and Canada already comply with similar rules.

“Companies already filing have suffered no commercial harm nor revealed vital secrets,” former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) wrote in an op-ed on Tuesday urging lawmakers not to repeal the rule. “Cast it aside and we are undoing a clear act of moral leadership, turning our back on corruption,” they wrote.

While the rule is based on bipartisan legislation, the House voted to kill it largely on partisan lines, with a majority of Republicans lining up against it. Tillerson, who personally lobbied for years against the rule, adds an extra wrinkle to the tale: The Senate is widely expected to approve his nomination as President Donald Trump’s secretary of state on Thursday. Critics worry that he will bring an oilman’s outlook to U.S. diplomacy, including transactional relations with unsavory regimes.

“This has been a seven-year battle, fought tooth-and-nail by Exxon and now here we are,” a dejected Congressional staffer told FP, referring to the rule’s repeal. “It’s like a slap in the face that they’re both happening within 24 hours of each other,” the staffer said.

Photo credit: Brian Harkin/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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