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Trump suggests to oil donors he will fast-track their merger deals

1 month ago 172

Former president Donald Trump suggested to oil executive donors this month that he could ease the Federal Trade Commission’s scrutiny of their industry’s mergers and acquisitions if he returns to the White House, according to five people familiar with the matter.

During a fundraiser in Houston on May 22, oil executives complained that the FTC has taken too long to approve deals and has requested too much information. Occidental Petroleum CEO Vicki Hollub told Trump that her company’s $12 billion acquisition of the oil and gas producer CrownRock had been delayed as the government sought information off her phone, five people with knowledge of the meeting said.

Trump expressed dismay that the federal government had probed her phone for information and vowed that his administration would treat her differently if he won the presidency, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

“Can you just wait a few months?” he said, according to these individuals.

Trump’s remarks, which have not previously been reported, indicated that he may try to influence the FTC, an independent agency, on behalf of his supporters. They come as the oil and gas industry is in the midst of multibillion dollar mergers, which have prompted calls from Democrats for strict government scrutiny.

Trump has made a concerted push to woo oil and gas CEOs, asking top executives to steer $1 billion to his 2024 campaign during a dinner in April at his Mar-a-Lago Club, as The Washington Post first reported. At the event, he promised to reverse dozens of President Biden’s environmental rules and policies.

Congressional Democrats have called on the FTC and the Justice Department to investigate a recent wave of oil and gas industry mergers, suggesting that they have raised energy costs for American families and businesses. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and 22 other Democratic senators sent a letter on Thursday urging DOJ to “use every tool” at its disposal to prevent and prosecute alleged price-fixing in the oil industry.

The FTC alleged earlier this month that Scott Sheffield, the former CEO of Pioneer Natural Resources, had colluded with the coalition of oil-producing nations led by Saudi Arabia and Russia to artificially raise crude oil prices. Sheffield has denied the allegations and accused the government of “vilifying” him without evidence.

At the Houston fundraiser, Trump also gave a speech in which he vowed to immediately approve oil pipelines and expand oil drilling in a second term, as The Post has reported.

A representative for Trump’s super PAC declined to comment on the former president’s interaction with Hollub. Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, declined to comment on a super PAC event but said that Trump “is supported by people who share his vision of energy dominance to protect our national security and bring down the cost of living for all Americans.”

Eric Moses, a spokesman for Occidental, did not directly comment on the interaction with Trump. “We believe our transaction with CrownRock is good for consumers and America’s energy security. We have worked productively with the FTC to respond to its information requests and expect to close the deal during the third quarter,” Moses said.

The people familiar with the matter said Hollub did not explicitly ask for Trump to help and seemed to chuckle when he made the promise.

If approved, the CrownRock takeover would make Occidental a bigger player in U.S. shale than Chevron and Hess combined. The deal would boost Occidental’s production in the Permian Basin — a major oil field that covers West Texas and Southeast New Mexico — by 170,000 barrels of oil and gas per day. The FTC has sought to determine whether the merger violates antitrust regulations.

“Some of our teams felt like they [the FTC] had asked for everything,” Hollub told analysts during a call to discuss the company’s 2023 financial results, Reuters reported.

Occidental’s acquisition of CrownRock is just one of several recent mergers in the oil and gas industry. On Wednesday, ConocoPhillips announced it is set to acquire Marathon Oil in an all-stock deal valued at $22.5 billion. On Tuesday, Hess shareholders approved a $53 billion merger with Chevron, another deal facing a potentially lengthy regulatory review.

If all of the pending deals are approved, only six companies would control two-thirds of remaining commercial oil reserves in the Permian Basin, according to the research firm Rystad Energy.

“It’s a new era of the shale industry. We’ve been calling it Shale 4.0,” said Matthew Bernstein, a senior analyst and manager of shale analytics at Rystad Energy. “Perhaps there has been a higher degree of FTC scrutiny, given the pace and the size of these deals.”

The FTC has long operated on the principle that it should be a neutral arbiter, indifferent to whether a company or industry is favored by the current president. Its core mission is to prevent business practices that are anticompetitive, deceptive or unfair to consumers. Though its five commissioners are nominated by the president, no more than three can be of the same party.

Conservatives have grown increasingly angry with what they say is an overly aggressive FTC, particularly on oil deals. In addition to investigating Occidental’s acquisition of CrownRock, the FTC has requested additional information about ExxonMobil’s agreement to buy Pioneer Natural Resources and Chevron’s planned merger with Hess.

Hollub was one of several co-hosts of the fundraiser at a luxurious hotel in Houston, and the interaction came in a private roundtable for the top donors that preceded Trump’s speech. The overall event raised more than $15 million, Trump campaign officials said. Other organizers included Harold Hamm, the executive chairman of the oil giant Continental Resources, and Kelcy Warren, the billionaire chairman and CEO of Energy Transfer Partners.

Phones were taken before attendees entered the smaller room. A few other elected officials also attended the event, but it was mainly oil executives, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

At the roundtable, the top donors were given access to talk with Trump about whatever was on their minds, according to people briefed on the event.

Many of the donors complained about Biden administration policies, and Trump pledged to reverse some of them. For instance, he promised to revoke California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act, which allows the state to set tougher emissions limits for passenger cars than those of the federal government.

Other states have adopted California’s emissions rules, which have prompted Detroit to develop and sell more electric vehicles and hybrids, reducing demand for gasoline. The Environmental Protection Agency revoked this waiver during Trump’s first term, but the Biden administration restored it, and a federal court last month upheld it.

Trump also vowed to shift the focus of the International Energy Agency, the world’s top energy watchdog, from combating climate change to boosting fossil fuels. In recent years, the IEA has focused more on clean energy, angering top oil producers and clashing with Trump’s “drill, baby, drill” philosophy. The United States provides about a quarter of IEA’s funding, and Trump could push to replace its director, Fatih Birol, with someone more sympathetic to fossil fuel interests.

Donors found Trump particularly friendly to their agenda, according to four people briefed on the roundtable. Climate advocates, in contrast, have argued that the planet cannot afford four more years of Trump’s environmental rollbacks and policies, and reacted strongly to the latest revelations.

“It’s disgusting and horrifying and beyond appalling but not surprising,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. “Trump showed us who he is when he was the president; he was the worst president by far on climate and clean energy and environmental justice.”

Trump’s comments at the Houston fundraiser probably did not violate campaign finance laws, said Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance lawyer. In 2016, the Supreme Court overturned a public-corruption conviction of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell. The court’s ruling effectively made it harder to prove a “quid pro quo” in corruption cases, requiring prosecutors to demonstrate that campaign contributions directly influenced a specific government action, Fischer said.

In the wake of the McDonnell decision, it is now an “open question to how far politicians can go making promises to donors and potential donors,” he said.

Fischer said Trump would have a “fair argument” that he wasn’t promising anything specific in exchange for a campaign contribution — but was instead laying out how the FTC under his administration would operate differently.

“Trump is taking the transactional nature of fundraising to another level,” he said.

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