Oil minister must answer on Angola

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Norwegian Oil & Energy Minister Tord Lien faces more questions from the Parliament’s disciplinary committee over what’s become of hundreds of millions of kroner paid by Statoil to authorities in corruption-plagued Angola. Statoil’s chairman, meanwhile, defends the state-controlled oil company’s controversial involvement in the country.

Oil & Energy Minister Tord Lien is once again being questioned by the parliamentary committee concerned about Statoil's questionable payments in Angola. PHOTO: OED/Scanpix

Oil & Energy Minister Tord Lien is once again being questioned by the parliamentary committee concerned about Statoil’s questionable payments in Angola. PHOTO: OED/Scanpix

It’s the fourth time that the parliament is raising concerns about the NOK 420 million Statoil agreed to pay as part of its efforts to obtain operating licenses on Angolan oil fields. The money was supposed to finance construction of a research and technology center under the auspices of Angolan state oil company Sonangol, but it’s never been built and there is no documentation the project even exists.

Statoil has paid a total of more than NOK 700 million for various “social contributions” in Angola but they can’t be documented either. Suspicions are high that the money has instead enriched the powerful family that holds political control over Angola, while the vast majority of the Angolan population lives in poverty. The main concern is whether the payments for alleged projects that never materialized or can’t be tracked amounted to bribes.

Lien, who as minister is responsible for the state’s 67 percent ownership stake in Statoil, has repeatedly failed to answer questions raised by the parliamentary committee to its satisfaction. “The minister (from Norway’s conservative Progress Party) has said he doesn’t see it as his responsibility to follow the enormous streams of money that have been paid to seemingly nothing in Angola,” Jette Christensen, an MP and member of the committee from the Labour Party, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week.

Not giving up
Now Christensen and fellow committee members want to know whether the ministry was aware of the payments required during the bidding process for Angolan operating rights in 2012, whether the questionable payments demanded were included in dialogue between the ministry and Statoil and, if so, when and whether the process and payments came up in other meetings or discussion between Statoil and the ministry. The committee also has asked for all relevant information regarding the payment issue that’s been exchanged between Statoil and the ministry.

Christensen mostly wants to document whether the parliament’s anti-corruption measures have been followed by the ministry. Dialogue between ministry officials and leaders of the companies in which that state has ownershipship stakes is among such measures, Christensen notes: “We want to know how  that’s been used, whether he (Lien) was oriented about the situation (when Statoil itself admitted it has no idea where it’s money has gone) and when he took up the issue himself,” after the media revealed the payments.

When Lien last was challenged by the parliament’s committee, which asked to see the legal evaluations Statoil itself had made regarding its agreement to pay hundreds of millions of kroner to Angolan authorities, he hired the Oslo law firm BA-HR to obtain legal advice himself. BA-HR concluded that Statoil wasn’t legally obligated to hand over its own legal evaluations to the ministry. Lien could thus claim he had nothing to forward to the committee.

Øystein Løseth has been criticized for holding too low of a profile as Statoil's new chairman. Statoil's own website only has two small photos of him, but he has now answered some questions on Angola. PHOTO: Statoil

Øystein Løseth has been criticized for holding too low of a profile as Statoil’s new chairman. Statoil’s own website only has two small photos of him, but he has now fielded some questions on Angola. PHOTO: Statoil

Statoil Chairman Øystein Løseth, who took on his post last summer, is now defending Statoil’s involvement in Angola. The country ranks as one of the most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International, while it also has become Statoil’s second-most important production source after Norway.

Despite the high corruption risk, Løseth told DN this week that he think’s it was right for Statoil to invest in Angola. “I base that on the strong support from Norwegian politicians to have a presence in countries that can be described as vulnerable to corruption and where there’s poverty,” Løseth told DN. “Statoil as a company has a responsibility when we go in to be part of developing these countries. One of the things we have done is to strive for openness around information when we go in. When we went into Angola, we specified exactly what was paid in bonus and social measures.”

Statoil also paid NOK 14 billion in taxes to the West African country last year, along with NOK 112 million in “signature bonus” and “social measures.” Løseth said he thinks Statoil’s presence in Angola has “helped” the country, but without being able to offer any examples.

Løseth, who has been criticized for keeping too low of a profile as Statoil’s chairman, couldn’t answer DN‘s questions about any concrete signs of how the billions Statoil has paid in Angola have reduced corruption, promoted democracy or provided improvements for the poor.

“I can’t involve myself in the inner politics of the various countries (where Statoil does business),” Løseth told DN, “But I think that every little drop helps. There is no doubt that Angola has received large revenues because of oil. International oil companies have contributed to that. How that money is used internally … is difficult for me to comment on, but we can hope it contributes positively to the country.”

Asked what he meant, both morally and personnally, Løseth told DN that “I think (the investment) can be defended. I think it helps Angola that the country has a lot of money. Then it comes to using the money correctly. That’s up to Angolan authorities and the people of Angola.”

But, asked DN, if Statoil is producing oil that makes one family richer and richer, is that good enough? “I go back to the Norwegian authorities attutude about that, that it helps to be present in such countries,” Løseth answered. “If everyone withdraws, I don’t think that will help at all.”

Løseth concluded that even though Statoil’s “contribution” is up for discussion by the Parliament’s investigative and disciplinary committee, he doesn’t think there will be a major political discussion over whether it is right for Norwegian companies to be involved in countries like Angola. DN reported that Statoil generated NOK 23 billion from its operations in Africa last year alone.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund