President Donald Trump began his inaugural address by declaring that he would be “transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to [us], the people.” After having repeatedly promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington during his campaign, it comes as no surprise that he would continue to at least rhetorically train his fire on Washington elites once in office.
But are these promises to give power to the American people anything more than rhetoric?
Judging by Trump’s first decisions in office as well as the priorities of the Republican majorities in Congress, it appears that Trump and the GOP have another constituency to whom they intend to transfer power: the fossil fuel industry.
On his fifth day in office, Trump revived both the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access pipeline, the construction of both of which had been blocked due to a variety of environmental concerns. On the same day, U.S. House of Representatives majority leader Kevin McCarthy announced that the House would use the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to attempt to repeal three important regulations that are opposed by fossil fuel companies: the stream protection rule, which would require coal mining companies to take steps to avoid contaminating streams and drinking water; the methane and waste prevention rule, which would limit the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that can be released during drilling on public lands; and the resource extraction transparency rule, which would require oil, gas, and mining companies to publish what monies they pay to governments around the world. CRA disapproval resolutions on these rules were in fact introduced on Monday, Jan. 30.
So much for giving power to the people, who value clean water, are concerned about global warming, and worry about corporate capture of our government. Instead, Trump and the Republicans appear to be giving yet more power to the fossil fuel industry, one of the most powerful corporate lobbies in the country.
The long, tortured saga of the resource extraction transparency rule perfectly illustrates the fossil fuel industry’s tremendous power. The rule has its origins in a bipartisan amendment to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in 2010. Its purpose was to bring transparency to a notoriously opaque and politically powerful industry: companies that drill oil and gas or that mine valuable minerals. Domestically, it would allow the American people to see how much these companies earned from resources produced on public land and in public waters. Internationally, it would make it harder for corrupt politicians to steal the billions in revenues generated by resource extraction and thereby help to combat the resource curse in which developing countries are destabilized by the corruption engendered by natural resource wealth.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was supposed to finalize the rule within 270 days, but under industry pressure, the agency dragged its feet, and the rule was not finalized until 2012. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute (API) then sued the SEC, arguing that the agency had not properly weighed the costs of the rule and that the rule violated corporations’ free speech rights. A judge vacated the original rule in 2013 and the SEC again dragged its feet and did not issue a new rule until 2016. It is this new version of the rule that is being targeted by Republicans in Congress.
The resource extraction transparency rule also offers a nice lesson in corporate hypocrisy. While Big Oil companies like Exxon and Chevron have the Chamber and API do the dirty work litigating and lobbying against the rule, they tout their involvement (here and here) in the U.S. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a separate, voluntary initiative to further natural resource revenue transparency in the U.S. Of course, since US EITI is voluntary, without the resource extraction transparency rule, the information it will be able to publish about company tax payments will be extremely limited. For Exxon and Chevron, it’s the best of both worlds – they polish their corporate image by participating in the voluntary US EITI process while they have the Chamber and API kill the rule that would allow US EITI to fulfill its mission of publishing all payments that oil, gas, and mining companies make to the U.S. government.
If Trump is serious about giving power back to the people, then he must stop doing the bidding of the Chamber and the fossil fuel industry and oppose Republican efforts to undo critical rules protecting the environment and public welfare. In his inaugural address, Trump famously declared that alleged “American carnage stops right here and right now.” The resource extraction transparency rule would be of significant aid in stopping the all too real carnage taking place in countries afflicted by the resource curse, countries like Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan. It’s time that Trump gets serious about putting people – all people – first, and corporate special interests like the Chamber, API and Big Oil companies second.
Dan Dudis serves on the US EITI federal advisory committee and is director of Public Citizen’s Chamber Watch project.