WASHINGTON Dec 22 As debate rises in Washington
over the first thaw in relations between Iran and the United
States in decades, powerful oil companies are opting for an
unusual tactic: silence.
Oil companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp and
ConocoPhillips could earn huge profits if the United
States loosened economic sanctions on Iran, allowing access to
its oil and natural gas fields, some of the world's largest and
least costly to produce.
But through September, at least, U.S. energy companies have
largely opted to stand back even as Congress considers whether
to further limit new oil exports from the Islamic republic.
It is an unusual tack for an industry known for its strong
Capitol Hill presence on every issue from taxes to pollution
rules to international trade.
But this particular issue may be too hot to touch.
"You are unlikely to flip any lawmaker, but you could offend
them," said one lobbyist familiar with sanctions issues, who
spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid being seen as speaking
for clients. He said his company had received no client requests
this year to lobby on Iran sanctions.
The oil and gas industry spent $105 million on lobbying in
the first nine months of this year, behind only the insurance
and pharmaceutical industries, according to the Center for
Responsive Politics, a Washington watchdog group. Companies in
the sector, and their employees, also donated a total of $20.5
million to candidates in last year's elections, ranking ninth
It is uncertain whether the six-month deal with Iran struck
last month in Geneva will lead to comprehensive restrictions on
its nuclear capabilities, which could bring a full rollback of
sanctions. Under the interim deal, Iran will limit uranium
enrichment in return for limited access to funds frozen by U.S.
The June election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani
offered a clear sign that 2013 could be the best year for
relations between Washington and Tehran since Iran's 1979
Yet the U.S. Congress has been firm in its backing of
further action against Iran. The House of Representatives voted
400-20 in July to choke funding to Iran's disputed nuclear
program by slashing its oil exports further than sanctions
enacted in 2010.
The Senate also widely supports being tough on Iran, though
President Barack Obama has pushed it to delay introduction of
its version of the bill to give the Geneva agreement a chance.
For its part, Iran's oil ministry is hopeful a full deal
could one day spur new investment by U.S. energy companies. Oil
Minister Bijan Zanganeh this month named seven Western energy
companies it wants back to develop reservoirs if sanctions are
lifted, including Exxon and Conoco.
Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said that his company always
looks for development opportunities, but that current U.S. laws
prevent work in Iran.
A Conoco spokesman said his company is not engaged in
business discussions with Iran.
Both companies have not lobbied Congress this year on Iran
sanctions, records show. Neither has U.S.-based companies
Chevron Corp or Halliburton Co.
All four companies lobbied Congress in 2010 on the initial
sanctions bill that targeted the OPEC member's oil exports.
Conoco lobbied that year, the spokesman said, as part of a
coalition called USA Engage. The coalition was concerned about
the impact of sanctions on joint venture projects in foreign
"The 2013 legislation did not appear to have this impact,
and no lobbying activity was required," the Conoco spokesman
The other three U.S. companies declined to comment.
Congressional aides agreed oil companies would be wasting
their time if they attempted to persuade lawmakers to turn back
existing sanctions or prevent enactment of new ones.
The effort "would likely fall on deaf ears at a minimum and
at worst create serious political repercussions" if oil
companies were seen as undermining the resolve by the countries
that reached the interim agreement with Iran, the United States,
Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany, one Democratic House
aide said on condition of anonymity.
The companies that have lobbied Congress this year have
largely been U.S. divisions of larger international oil
companies, such as BP America, part of London-based BP Plc
and Shell Oil Co, the U.S. unit of Royal Dutch Shell Plc
BP lobbied Congress between April and September of this year
on the House Iran bill, while Shell weighed in on "general
issues related to Iran" between January and March, records show.
"It is not unusual for BP to discuss proposed new
legislation with lawmakers in order to understand its purpose
and scope so that, among other things, we can remain compliant
in the event it is enacted," said BP spokesman Scott Dean.
Shell did not respond to questions.
The American Petroleum Institute, the main oil industry
trade association, lobbied on a provision in the bill that
threatened U.S. shipping lanes, but not on the sanctions
themselves, an oil industry expert said. The trade group
declined to comment.