Big oil firms paid for alleged cheating on royalties; now fight disclosure

The Thomson Reuters Foundation, with help from the Sunlight Foundation and Transparency International, has found that oil and gas companies paid $3 billion in recent years in fines, settlements and audits after they were accused of cheating on royalties.

According to the foundation:

Oil companies have paid $3 billion over the past 15 years to resolve a range of charges including that they regularly cheated the U.S. government and Native American communities out of royalties on oil and gas leases, raising concerns they use similar techniques to rob citizens in poor countries of resource wealth.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation found violations across three categories between 1998 and 2013: False Claims Act settlements, civil penalties and audits or other compliance checks. False Claims Act settlements result from lawsuits that allege a company made false or fraudulent royalty payments on oil or gas leases with the U.S. government and Native American tribes.

Compiled from U.S. Justice Department press releases, they found $739.2 million was paid out in False Claims Act settlements. Of the total, Shell paid $168 million and ExxonMobil paid $84 million.

These are the same companies leading the fight in the United States against strong transparency regulations that human rights advocates say are needed to help address massive corruption and extreme poverty in many resource-rich countries.

The largest category was $2.2 billion in corrective payments that resulted from audits by the Office of Natural Resources Revenue after the agency checked whether oil and gas companies were paying the right amount of royalties.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation analyzed data from Office of Natural Resources Revenue, the agency that oversees revenue from mineral leases, and used tools from the Sunlight Foundation, including Influence Explorer and Docket Wrench to catalog 15 years of payments.

Reach Eric Holmberg at eholmberg@publicsource.org or 412-315-0266.