Statoil payments now being probed

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UPDATED: Investigators at Norway’s white-collar crime unit Økokrim have reportedly started looking into what happened to hundreds of millions of kroner that Statoil has paid to Angola’s state oil company Sonangol over the past several years. The money was supposed to be used for a research center that’s never been built, and for “social contributions” to Angola that remain unclear, and Statoil’s management knew they posed a “considerable” risk to Statoil’s reputation.

PHOTO: Statoil/Harald Pettersen

Statoil claims it has been “open” with investigators at Økokrim and that it’s “natural” for them to seek more information. PHOTO: Statoil/Harald Pettersen

The payments, which date back to 2011, were tied to Statoil’s bid to win licenses and operating responsibility on Angola’s Kwanza oil field. Statoil’s operations in Angola now account for a major portion of the company’s total oil production.

With Angola ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, however, questions have arisen over the fate of money Statoil maintains was paid in line with its contractual obligations. It included the equivalent of NOK 420 million for the research center and NOK 295 million for other social projects. Statoil has since paid NOK 715 million over the past five years, but the research center only exists on paper and there’s been little if any accounting for the money expected to finance social projects in Angola, where the vast majority of the population lives in poverty.

‘Preliminary evaluations’ by Økokrim
Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Friday that Økokrim was making preliminary evaluations of the payments, the first step towards an investigation. Bård Glad Pedersen, a former state secretary in Norway’s foreign ministry who now works as Statoil’s communications chief, told DN that the company had “voluntarily” and “openly” informed Økokrim about the payments. He appeared to downplay the prospect of a full investigation.

“There is no investigation of the case, but it is natural that Økokrim has taken contact to get information,” Pedersen told DN. He repeated earlier claims that the payments “with social goals” in Angola were made in line with anti-corruption laws, and that Statoil reports its annual payments to both Angolan authorities and Sonangol.

Pedersen stressed that Statoil had also “put weight on” efforts to “respond openly and completely” to questions about the Angolan payments from Norway’s oil and energy ministry. The state owns 67 percent of Statoil’s stock, and Oil Minister Tord Lien has thus been subjected to questioning himself from the parliament’s disciplinary committee.

Lien delivered his own latest answers to the Angolan payment question on Friday. DN reported that he responded, however, that he didn’t see it as the ministry’s responsibility, “as an owner of Statoil, to follow the streams of money paid in to various countries, not to Angola either.”

Statoil acknowledged risk
DN reported Friday that in Statoil’s letter to the ministry, it wrote that Statoil’s board under former chairman Svein Rennemo had taken up the Angolan payments issue several times in 2014 through its committee on security, sustainability and ethics. The letter discloses that in 2015, Statoil’s management under new chief executive Eldar Sætre wrote to the committee that ongoing payments for the research center could come at “considerable” risk to Statoil’s reputation.

The payments continued, however, until the “fifth and last payment to Sonangol EP in December 2015,” according to the letter, when the Angola issue was again “taken up for thorough evaluation and discussion within company management. The conclusion to pay in line with the contract was based on advice from internal and external anti-corruption experts that such payment would not be at odds with relevant anti-corruption laws.”

Statoil’s ethics committee described the Angola payments as “a difficult case” and wanted it laid out at a board meeting on December 16. The board concluded that it would support management, and that the remaining million-kroner amounts could be transferred to a center Statoil had not received information about from Angola.

Øystein Løseth took over as Statoil chairman last June and expressed “full confidence” in how Statoil’s managment has handled the Angola case, in an email to DN last month.

DN reported there was no immediate response from Økokrim to questions about its preliminary evaluation.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund