ExxonMobil and openness 

As the absurdities of the Trump administration unfold with disturbing regularity, it will take principled voices all over to roll back the damage being wrought across many fronts and in many forms not even yet realised.

On Friday, it was the long-serving US Republican Senator Chuck Grassley who spoke out strongly against the Trump administration’s bizarre but not unexpected attempt to clamp down on the provision of information to Democratic lawmakers.

Judiciary Committee chairman Grassley of Iowa, in a more than 2,100-word letter to the White House, asked President Trump to rescind what has been described as “unprecedented guidance” that told executive agencies they do not have to honour requests for information from lawmakers from the minority party.

Reuters reported last week that in hearings all over Capitol Hill members of both parties have criticised the information block. Democrats have argued that the Trump administration is trying to cloak mistakes and wrongdoing.

Grassley, who has served in the Senate since 1981, called the guidance “nonsense” and labelled it as “a bureaucratic effort by the Office of Legal Counsel to insulate the executive branch from scrutiny by the elected representatives of the American people.”

The Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over the Justice Department and its Office of Legal Counsel, which published the guidance last month.

Grassley forthrightly said the guidance goes against the US Constitution by misrepresenting how Congress functions and trying to tell the legislative branch how to do its job. It also shackles Democratic lawmakers’ ability to check up on the president, a responsibility also laid out in the constitution, Grassley wrote in the letter which also offered case citations.

“I know from experience that a partisan response to oversight only discourages bipartisanship, decreases transparency, and diminishes the crucial role of the American people’s elected representatives,” he wrote. “Oversight brings transparency, and transparency brings accountability”.

Although relatively removed from this toxic cauldron that is Trump’s Washington, the government here and indeed all other stakeholders need to pay careful attention to this developing trend to withhold information or to knot it up in lengths of subterfuge.

ExxonMobil, the American petroleum behemoth with which Guyana will have to have serious negotiations on the fledgling oil economy, drew attention to itself this week. ExxonMobil has been on the global radar over allegations that it tried to doctor established climate science in its organisation. Several US states’ attorneys have been duelling in the US courts for access to information from ExxonMobil on a range of areas including its weighing of climate change risks. The US Securi-ties and Exchange Commission is also probing how ExxonMobil valued its oil and gas reserves in the backdrop of low oil prices and possible curbs on carbon emissions.

On Friday, ExxonMobil Corp asked a New York court to reject another subpoena request from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, arguing that the prosecutor’s recent claim to have found evidence that ExxonMobil misled investors was false and that he was abusing his investigative powers.

According to Reuters, the company said that Schneiderman’s allegation that it had neglected to estimate the impact of future environmental regulation on new deals was “frivolous” and that no “legitimate law enforcement need” would be served by giving his office more documents.

“For a prosecutor proceeding in good faith, the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing is grounds for closing an investigation, not expanding it,” ExxonMobil wrote in its filing with the court.

Schneiderman’s office denied the allegations, Reuters said.

“As detailed in our filing last week, the Attorney General’s office has a substantial basis to suspect that Exxon’s proxy cost analysis may have been a sham,” said Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the New York attorney general. “This office takes potential misrepresentations to investors very seriously and will vigorously seek to enforce this subpoena. We look forward to next week’s hearing.”

Schneiderman, the report said, has sought more materials from the oil producer as part of an ongoing probe that has already reviewed nearly 3 million documents. He is examining whether ExxonMobil misled the public about its understanding of the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the earth’s climate.

The probe has already revealed that current US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who until December was chief executive of ExxonMobil, used a separate email address and an alias, “Wayne Tracker,” to discuss climate change-related issues while at the company.

Testimony that Schneiderman made public on June 2 offered more details about how the company handled the “Wayne Tracker” account, which was first created in 2007. Exxon employee Connie Feinstein, an information technology manager for the oil company, told prosecutors that changes in the email programme ExxonMobil used, along with an automated process that deleted internal emails after 13 months, may have erased years’ worth of “Wayne Tracker”/Tillerson  emails.

ExxonMobil, Reuters reported, has been fighting Schneiderman’s requests for information about its climate change policies in both state and federal court, claiming it should not have to turn over records because the New York prosecutor’s probe is politically motivated.

The matters between Schneiderman and ExxonMobil are of great interest to Guyana as it works through the thicket of licensing arrangements and deals that will have to be hammered out with this US conglomerate. There is also the outstanding question of whether an adequate feasibility study has been done for the offshore well here in light of the unstable oil prices among other factors.  If it is borne out that ExxonMobil adulterated the well-established findings of the anthropogenic basis for climate change and misled investors, then there should be concerns here about the framework within which future negotiations are conducted between Guyana and ExxonMobil.

The public here is yet to be convinced or assured that Guyana has the best team batting for it in ongoing and impending negotiations with ExxonMobil. As a matter of fact, there is substantial concern that the government has had to rely on various companies and consultants who have had connections with ExxonMobil. Hopefully, pending membership of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and assistance from the Commonwealth Secretariat, Chatham House and friendly countries such as Norway will enable Guyana to counter any adverse winds in talks with ExxonMobil and also minimise the risks of illicit behaviour.

In recent months, and in light of the various oil finds offshore, there have been mounting calls for the APNU+AFC government to release the original contract signed in 1999 between the then PPP/C government and Exxon’s subsidiary, EEPGL. The government has declined to release the contract listing a number of excuses, none of which are convincing or appear to have any real merit. With the help of a friend of press freedom, Stabroek News has gotten hold of a copy of the contract and has published it on its website (www.stabroeknews.com) in the interest of transparency. Hopefully this will enable persons knowledgeable in such contracts to present informed views on the way forward between Guyana and ExxonMobil. Critically, the government must assemble the best advisors, unencumbered by any ties to ExxonMobil, to guide it on the way forward. It would be the best investment in anticipation of future earnings from first oil.

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