Politics of Poverty

After a long haul, SEC finally acts for oil, mining transparency

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Civil society input from resource-rich countries cited by SEC

It took far longer than I—or any of us at Oxfam—expected, but the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has finally issued binding regulations to implement the oil, gas, and mining disclosure provisions contained in the 2010 landmark Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. Starting in 2014, an estimated 1,100 companies will have to start disclosing the payments they make to governments on a country-by-country and project-by-project basis. This includes American companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, foreign companies, such as BP and Shell, and some companies from emerging markets such as China, India, Brazil, and Russia.

On August 22, the SEC approved regulations to enforce Section 1504 (“Cardin-Lugar”) passed over two years ago. (Since the SEC was more than a year past the Congressionally mandated deadline, Oxfam America used public pressure tactics—including stunts in front of the SEC and Chevron—as well as litigation to try to compel the SEC to act.)

Oxfam activists outside Chevron's headquarters in Houston. Photo by Scott Dalton.

While many were worried that the SEC would give in to the demands of the oil industry to issue watered-down regulations, and Oxfam America is still completing a legal review of the regulations, the agency appears largely to have stuck to the statutory language and Congressional intent. For example, the SEC did not grant any exemptions to the disclosure requirements for covered companies. Some oil companies had said that they should be allowed to withhold disclosures in certain countries that legally prohibit disclosing government payments, but Oxfam America and its allies in the Publish What You Pay US coalition made it clear to the SEC that such prohibitions have not been shown to exist.

The requirements as enacted have been hailed in the developed and developing world. Such ideologically diverse publications as the Financial Times and The Nation have both praised the SEC move. The FT said in an editorial (“Sunshine Rules”) that the new SEC regulation “puts legal force behind a demand long pushed by civil society organisations: that extractive companies disclose the payments they make to host governments… the transparency rule will make a real difference.”

Hannah Owusu-Koranteng, one of the founders of WACAM, a mining activist group and Oxfam partner. Jeff Deutsch/Oxfam America.

On the ground, activists are eagerly awaiting the disclosures. In Ghana, Hannah Owusu-Koranteng, an Oxfam partner from WACAM, a mining activist group, said the project-level disclosures required will “provide communities and local officials in Ghana with detailed information on the revenue flowing to government from gold extracted from their lands.” (Just before the SEC vote, I was in Ghana’s Western Region – a part of the country rich in gold and oil – looking at our district assembly budget monitoring work. SEC project-level disclosures will certainly help district officials and citizens “follow the money”.)

In Cambodia, a country rich in natural resources but where more than 50 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day, very little public information about oil and mining revenue is available. SEC disclosures by Chevron and others will put information into the hands of activists who have been failed by international voluntary measures such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The SEC move has made a big splash, with coverage in the Phnom Penh Post and Khmer-language media. Oxfam partner Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency hailed the regulation as a landmark for the transparency movement.

Reading through the SEC’s 231-page explanation of the rules (and I’ve never been more excited to read a government regulation!), I was inspired by the involvement and impact of civil society groups from around the world who shared their views—and evidence—directly with the SEC drafters in Washington through a transparent regulatory process. Input from groups in Ghana, Peru, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Nigeria, Burma and elsewhere shared a common theme—this information will be vitally important in our fight for transparency.

Enactment of the regulations is now having a global ripple effect. In Europe, the European Parliament has scheduled an important committee vote on a proposal to possibly match—or go beyond—the US requirements and European Members of Parliament are pointing to the final SEC rule to push for strong requirements there. (Companies that are “cross-listed”—on stock markets in the US and Europe—already have to comply with the strong SEC rules, so Oxfam believes they should drop their efforts to slow or weaken progress in Europe.) Also, last week Publish What You Pay Canada and Revenue Watch Institute announced an agreement with the two largest mining industry associations in Canada to develop mandatory reporting requirements for Canadian stock exchanges.

Real social progress takes time (and monkeys). It’s been a 10 year fight to get this far. Next week the Publish What You Pay coalition celebrates its 10th anniversary with a well-timed global conference in Amsterdam bringing together more than 250 activists from 50+ resource-rich countries. The next 10 years must be focused on finishing the job and putting this information to work to ensure that oil and mining billions are invested in people, not lining pockets!


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