Dec 17, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The next phase of the decade-long fight over oil money disclosure

Illustration of an oil rig in the Saudi desert casting a shadow in the shape of a dollar sign

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This week brought a new and maybe decisive turn in a high-stakes fight over how much oil and mining companies should reveal about payments to foreign governments.

Driving the news: The Securities and Exchange Commission voted 3-2 Wednesday to finalize disclosure rules required under the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial law. But the panel's Democrats and human rights groups called it too weak.

Why it matters: The Dodd-Frank provision aims to create transparency to battle the "resource curse."

  • That's the poverty, conflict, and government corruption in some resource-rich nations in Africa and elsewhere.
  • The idea is to reveal payments for contracts, royalties and so forth to help ensure residents share the benefits from resource extraction.
  • The oil lobby says it favors disclosure but argues that granular mandates are burdensome and hobble SEC-regulated firms when competing for contracts.

Catch up fast: The SEC first issued rules in 2012. But industry groups sued and a federal judge nixed the regulation.

  • The SEC completed a rewrite in 2016. But in 2017 Republicans passed legislation to kill the rule and President Trump signed it.
  • Now it's tricky because the law they used, called the Congressional Review Act, bars agencies from re-issuing rules that closely mirror an overturned one.

What's new: Yesterday's version makes the required public disclosures much less specific than prior versions.

It defines "project" in a much less detailed way and enables companies to report payments at national and broad regional levels. The rule also contains multiple exemptions.

What they're saying: "We appreciate the Commission’s...effort to balance transparency with the overall mission to protect investors, competition and the efficiency of capital markets," said Stephen Comstock of the American Petroleum Institute.

Yes, but: Advocacy groups blasted it. "Oil companies and corrupt kleptocrats should no longer be able to exploit U.S. financial secrecy, and investors should have the information they really need to make informed investment decisions," said Ian Gary of the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency Coalition.

What's next: Several groups said the incoming Biden administration, which will appoint a Democratic SEC chair, should revisit and strengthen the rule. And Gary said it's "vulnerable to litigation," though called that only "one possible option."

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