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Excerpt From A 1970s Senate Report On Oil And The American State

In my research on a project I am doing, I came across a report created by the Senate Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which was released in the mid-1970s.

I thought of writing a short post and cross-referencing it with other things I found; however, I feel it is best for readers to understand the material themselves by putting an excerpt. Indeed, this provides a good indication of American oil companies and the role of the state in pushing forth expansion of the industry. It is unedited and the first three chapters can be found here.

Without further ado…

In March 1920, the Senate requested that the President report to it on the restrictions being imposed on American citizens wishing to explore for petroleum in foreign countries. The State Department responded with a series of reports drawing a startling picture of measures being taken to exclude American interests from foreign oil fields, especially from fields under the control of Britain and the Netherlands. Senator Phelan of California proposed that a government corporation be established to develop oil resources abroad. But this proposal met with no success. Instead, Congress passed the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, which provided that oil and other minerals in US public lands could be available for exploitation by domestic foreign-owned corporations but that if similar privileges were denied US nationals they could not “by stock ownership, stock holding, or stock control own any interest in any lease acquired under the provision of this act.” The Congressional act thus established in limited form the principle of reciprocity.

That same year the United States also learned of the Dutch Government’s intention to grant the oil concession in the Djambi residency (Southeastern Sumatra) of the Netherlands East Indies to a new Dutch company half owned by the Royal Dutch-Shell. The prospect of “the most valuable mineral oil fields in the whole Colony” being granted exclusively to a Dutch firm led the State Department to make a strong protest to the Netherlands. When the Dutch were unwilling to reconsider their position, the United States Government informed the Netherlands that:

No foreign capital may operate in American public lands unless its Government accords similar or like privileges to American citizens, and, further more . . . in the light of the future needs of the United States such very limited and purely defensive provisions . . . might become inadequate should the principle of equality of opportunity not be recognized in foreign countries.

Shortly thereafter the Department of the Interior refused to grant Shell a permit to explore for oil on certain public lands in Utah on the grounds that the Netherlands discriminated against American business. Since the United States was the world’s greatest petroleum producer and consumer, the threat of denial of investment privileges proved to be a powerful wedge in forcing open the door abroad. Finally, in 1927, the Dutch requested the United States to consider the Netherlands a “reciprocating” country under the Mineral Leasing Act. An agreement was worked out which allowed American companies to explore in the Netherlands Indies in return for the Netherlands being declared a reciprocating country.

Opening the Door in Iraq

The same pattern of State Department support for American corporate entry into the colonial territories of the major European countries was followed in Iraq. With the consent of the Turkish Government a concession had been granted to a consortium of European interests – British Petroleum, Shell, C. S. Gulbenkian and the Deutsche Bank. But Turkey’s alliance with Germany during World War I cost both countries dearly. The German shares of the consortium in Iraq were taken by the British. In April 1920 the Allied Supreme Council allotted the mandate over Iraq and Palestine to Britain and the mandate over Syria and Lebanon to France. The San Remo Agreement was then signed between France and Britain in which the latter exchanged the German interest in Iraq in return for the right to construct pipelines across France’s sphere of influence. News of the new European arrangement brought strong protests from the State Department. “It is not clear,” the Department wrote, “how such an agreement can be consistent with the principles of equality understood and accepted during the peace negotiations at Paris.” The State Department’s position was based on its fear that the British were using their political supremacy in the Middle East to establish economic supremacy in the world oil trade. Britain had already secured an agreement with the Sheikdom of Kuwait that its oil development would be entrusted only to British subjects; a similar agreement had also been signed with Bahrein. The San Remo Agreement therefore seemed final proof that this important area would be closed to American enterprise.

The State Department decided against arguing for an American interest in Iraq in pure national self-interest terms. It could not argue that only American companies should be allowed to explore in the area without appearing to take unfair advantage of its victory in World War I. Such a position would have contravened Wilsonian principles. The State Department therefore adopted an “open door,” policy knowing that the only companies then capable of taking advantage of an open door would be American. Under this policy the Department urged that all areas of the world should be open to development by the nationals of all countries, unencumbered by nationalistic regulations or restrictive agreements.

The State Department’s diplomatic initiatives found their impetus in the American oil industry. When Exxon first expressed an interest in Iraq in 1919, the Department said that it could not support one company alone but would help a group of American companies. The American Petroleum Institute thereafter adopted a resolution which expressed its fear that US companies might be excluded from the Middle East and asked that the State Department take steps to correct the situation. “If, under a protectorate or any other form of control” the resolution declared . . . . “British and French interests . . . should be permitted to gain and maintain in exclusive right of development in Persia and in Turkey, to say nothing of the other oil-bearing lands embraced within the peace settlements . . . we do not hesitate to say that the results to the American petroleum industry might eventually prove to be disastrous.” In August 1921, the API was informed by Secretary of State Hughes and Secretary of Commerce Hoover that preliminary geological surveys in Iraq should be undertaken by the API on behalf of all interested members. In addition to Exxon, the other companies that decided to participate were Texaco, Gulf, Atlantic Refining, Sinclair, and the Standard Oil Company of Indiana. In November 1921, Secretary Hughes told the companies that he would inform them as soon as he had learned “that permission for prospecting in Mesopotamia is being or may be granted by the authorities in that territory . . .” The companies, however, went ahead and designated Exxon as their representative in negotiations with British Petroleum over an American interest in Iraq. BP was apparently persuaded by Gulbenkian that it would be better to join with the Americans rather than fight them and suffer the ensuing commercial and diplomatic repercussions.

When Exxon informed the State Department of its private negotiations, the response was quite pragmatic: “It is not the desire of the Department … to make difficulties or to prolong needlessly a diplomatic dispute or so to disregard the practical aspects of the situation as to prevent American enterprise from availing itself of the very opportunities which our diplomatic representations have striven to obtain.”Although the State Department urged the American companies to avoid any restrictive agreement, this became impossible as the negotiations with the European interests proceeded. The price of establishing the first American presence in the Middle East was the 1928 Red Line Agreement which obligated the consortium members not to compete against each other within the area of the old Ottoman Empire. “All members of American Group have accepted Agreement . . .” the American companies cabled their London attorneys on April 17, 1928, “and State Department has approved respecting its open door policy and you are authorized to close.” “Never,” Gulbenkian later wrote, “was the open door so hermetically sealed.” The ownership shares in the new Iraq Petroleum Company dPC) were as follows:

Royal Dutch-Shell 23. 75
British Petroleum 23. 75
Near East Development Corp. 23. 75
Compagnie Francaise des Petroles 23. 75
Gulbenkian 5. 00

The Compagnie Francaise des Petroles (CFP) was formed to hold the French interest in IPC; the Near East Development Corporation (NEDC) was formed to hold the American interest. By the early 1930’s, Sinclair, Texaco, Gulf, Indiana, and Atlantic had sold out their shares in NEDC to Exxon and Mobil, leaving those companies with 50% each of the American interest in IPC.

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Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan is a freelance journalist in Queens, NY and written for publications such as The Nation, In These Times, Truthout and more.