LONDON/WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The European Union and Canada took major steps on Wednesday to make oil, gas and mining companies declare payments to governments, widening the drive to end poverty in resource-rich nations by ensuring their wealth is shared out.
Their actions, days ahead of G8 meetings where financial transparency is on the agenda, represent a high watermark in the campaign to hold governments to account for natural resource wealth, transparency advocates said.
The EU parliament approved the most sweeping disclosure law to date, while Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the first time pledged to push forward mandatory reporting requirements for energy and mining companies, bringing a country with one of the world’s largest extractive sectors in developing countries into the transparency push.
This followed Swiss lawmakers on Tuesday backing a transparency proposal for extractives and for commodity trading companies, a $20 billion industry with major operations in Switzerland. Together with rules that take effect in the United States next year, these regulations will cover 70 percent of extractive industries by market capitalization.
“It shows the world is moving toward a new global standard on extractives transparency,” said Dominic Eagleton, an analyst at the advocacy group Global Witness.
Campaigners now want Russia and Japan at the G8 leaders’ summit of major industrialized nations on June 17 and 18 to join in endorsing disclosure, which they see as a way to tackle poverty in resource-rich countries and to combat corruption.
However, the drive faces a pushback in the United States where some of the biggest oil companies represented by the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of U.S. regulations to reveal project payments. They want to void the law.
But that lawsuit potentially has less bite now that the EU will require disclosure by project and by country, and companies such as British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell, which are party to the U.S. suit but headquartered in the United Kingdom, would be subject to EU rules.
Additionally, the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), a voluntary accord between companies, countries and civil society that litigants prefer as a forum for setting disclosure rules, last month also widened its disclosure requirements to match the U.S. and EU rules.
“Consensus is developing that (detailed) disclosure is the new normal,” Eagleton said.
EU LAW MAKES HISTORY
Under the sweeping EU law, both public companies and private companies registered as limited liability in the extractives and logging sectors would have to file reports by 2015 on payments they make to governments for natural resources, broken down by country and per project.
And EU lawmakers want transparency in the extractives to be just a beginning. They required the EU Commission to study extending the rules within three years of their implementation by the 28 member states. A parliamentary official said the intent is to eventually cover banking, telecommunications and construction - sectors that also have major government contracts making them prime venues for corruption.
Arlene McCarthy, the European lawmaker who has guided the law through the legislature, called the EU vote “history in the making.”
“This new law will be a major new weapon in the fight against corruption, ensuring that citizens of resource-rich countries can hold their governments to account for the exploitation of their natural resources,” McCarthy said in a statement before the vote.
“We have an agreement that we can be proud of and that shows how effective cooperation between legislators, citizens and action groups can deliver real change.”
CANADA INCHES FORWARD
Already Canada’s mining sector is working on a transparency agreement with civil society groups, and they expect to publish a draft proposal this week. Harper’s announcement should provide momentum to including the oil industry and implementing the agreement, which faces the protracted process of getting all 10 Canadian provinces and three territories to adopt the legislation, said Kady Seguin, at the transparency advocacy group Publish What You Pay Canada.
"This sends a really strong message because Canada is such a giant in the extractives worldwide,” Seguin said.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said it welcomed Harper's initiative. "We are looking to engage constructively in the dialogue. We are well-aligned with the government's objective for mandatory reporting of revenues from natural resources and transparency," said Bob Bleaney, its vice president for external affairs. He said the oil industry wants to see "effective and efficient" rules that comports with those in other jurisdictions.
Resource development accounts for close to 20 percent of Canada's gross domestic product. Harper said Canada would be "further enhancing its reputation" as a leader in transparency and accountability by establishing mandatory reporting requirements in the sector.
In Switzerland, a top global hub for commodities trading and home to the giant commodities company Glencore Xstrata, the federal government will take up the initiative.
"The Federal Council… will now consider transparency rules for the whole sector, meaning for listed and non-listed commodity companies as well as for commodity trading and extractive activities," said Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga.