President's Obama's State of the Union promise to open more offshore oil and gas fields and support natural gas development lacks one ingredient if the public is to receive the full economic benefits:
It is information.
Oil, gas and mining development on U.S. public lands provides the federal government with its largest source of non-tax income. Citizens deserve more information about what the oil and mining companies pay the government. Congress has in fact already required this information, through the Dodd-Frank reforms passed in 2010.
But major oil companies seem intent on preventing disclosure. They are fiercely lobbying the Securities and Exchange Commission (pdf) to water down the new rules it has already proposed requiring companies to report how much they pay governments for access to natural resources, country by country, for each project they undertake.
In every nation, citizens have a right to know what they're getting back from the sale of public resources. In the U.S., this is especially critical for the communities on the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere, that are directly affected by energy projects, because they shoulder the risks of development.
Oil and natural gas companies have made all kinds of promises about the value they will bring to energy-rich regions and the overall U.S. economy. Let's see what the benefits really are, through the Dodd-Frank reporting the SEC is empowered to demand.
The global momentum toward this kind of disclosure is strong. A new directive by the European Commission has called for company reporting rules inspired by the Dodd-Frank law. Here in the U.S., the only obstacle to citizens receiving this vital information is the frantic rearguard action from industry lobbyists. Washington must find the political will to uphold Dodd-Frank as it was passed and signed.
Financial information is the only tool governments have to ensure they're getting a fair deal from companies, and the only way for citizens to know if they're getting a fair deal from their governments.
The U.S. cannot break new ground on energy policy unless it holds the ground that Congress and the president have already staked out on full, meaningful disclosures by industry.