In a bitterly divided Congress, lawmakers still managed to come together to help Exxon Mobil pass major legislation that could remake the geopolitics of the Middle East and Europe.
During the holiday season legislative blitz in December, legislators tucked an obscure provision into the omnibus spending package that lifted arms restrictions and boosted a controversial pipeline deal in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The legislative text, mirroring a bill that has circulated in Congress over the last year, promises a range of U.S. assistance for the development of natural gas resources off the coasts of Israel and Cyprus, including support for constructing pipelines and liquified natural gas terminals and the creation of a United States-Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center in the region run by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Cyprus, one of the smallest states in the European Union, has come under increasing pressure from Turkey, which opposes the development of new gas fields off the disputed coasts of the island-state and has used its navy to threaten drilling vessels.
In response, the legislative text also repeals the prohibition of weapons transfers to Cyprus put in place in 1987, promotes greater U.S military assistance to Greece and Cyprus, and instructs the U.S. to maintain its newly situated predator drone fleet in the region. The omnibus includes provisions from the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, legislation introduced in the House and Senate last year.
While the provision received scant coverage in American media, it prompted a flurry of activity after its passage.
On January 2, leaders of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus appeared together to sign a trilateral deal to build a new $6.7 billion pipeline to bring gas from offshore fields in Israel and Cyprus to Greece, Italy, and Bulgaria. The new EastMed pipeline could transport as much as 20 billion cubic meters of gas to those countries annually, pitched as a way to lessen Russian and Turkish energy influence in the region. Days later, Russia and Turkey announced plans for their own joint venture, the TurkStream pipeline.
The authorization of the military assistance and pipeline support never received a single hearing, an up-or-down vote, or any open debate. Its inclusion in the must-pass spending package reflects the powerful lobbying coalition that came together in support of the deal.
That coalition included foreign agents tied to both Greece and Cyprus, the American Jewish Committee, and Christians United for Israel, an evangelical group with close ties to Israel. Greek American diaspora groups also mobilized to lobby for the legislation. Hellenic American Leadership Council, one Greek American group, touted the passage of the text as the “most pro-Hellenic bill in a generation.”
But disclosure documents reviewed by The Real News and The Intercept suggest that Exxon Mobil was at the center of the lobbying effort. The energy giant curried favor to win support for the gas project within the European Union, as well as in Washington, D.C.
The rapid political moves on Capitol Hill came just months after Exxon Mobil announced one of the largest gas field discoveries in recent years off the coast of Cyprus last February — the latest in a series of new discoveries in the region over the past decade.
In 2013, the Hudson Institute was the first major Beltway institution to call for the U.S. to provide military assistance to Cyprus and promote the development of the new gas discoveries in the region. The following year, the Hudson Institute published a long follow-up report on the issue, after which Exxon Mobil disclosed a donation of $15,000 to the think tank. Seth Cropsey, a senior Pentagon official for the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, served as the lead author of both reports.
The new gas discoveries prompted growing coordination between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus.
“We decided to explore this in a very audacious way: to form a trilateral committee between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel to plan the possibility of a pipeline that would take our common resources of gas and export them to Europe via Greece — a pipeline from Israel, Cyprus, through Greece to Europe,” Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a press conference in 2016. Also in 2016, Exxon Mobil and Qatar Petroleum formed a new venture and won a bid to explore offshore blocks near Cyprus. The contract was later inked in a 2017 ceremony in Cyprus, with officials from both companies present, alongside both the U.S. and Qatari ambassadors to Cyprus.
“Exxon Mobil and our partner, Qatar Petroleum, have a long and successful history of developing gas resources,” said Andrew Swiger, principal foreign officer of Exxon Mobil, in a press release at the time of winning bid.
Lobbying disclosures in the European Union show that Exxon Mobil officials quickly went to work, scheduling meetings in March 2018 with an unnamed EU cabinet member on gas exploration near Cyprus. Just three days later, the U.S. military brought the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit to Limassol, Cyprus, on the USS Iwo Jima as Exxon Mobil commenced exploratory drilling in the region.
Speaking with investors later that year, the company boasted about the Cyprus gas fields as a key area of growth. Asked by analysts about where Exxon Mobil sees its greatest future prospects, Neil Chapman, Exxon Mobil’s senior vice president, said he “would highlight Cyprus.” Last year, in another conference call with investors, Chapman emphasized that the Cyprus fields “turned out to be a pretty nice discovery.”
The EUobserver, a watchdog media outlet, obtained an email showing that Exxon Mobil hosted a lunch in April 2018 with Cypriot members of European Parliament, Cyprus’s highest EU diplomat, and EU Commissioner Christos Stylianides, to discuss the company’s gas exploration of the Cyprus coast. The lunch took place at a restaurant located close to the U.S. Embassy in Brussels.
In October 2018, the company also served as the lead sponsor of a gala held in Greece at the largest business convention in southeast Europe. In a photo published by the U.S. Embassy in Cyprus, then-U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus Kathleen Doherty is seen alongside Exxon Mobil executives.
Exxon is also active within AmCham Cyprus, a global offshoot of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that receives financial backing from the U.S. Embassy in Cyprus. The company’s office in Cyprus is located next door to the embassy.
Varnavas Theodossiou, lead country manager for the company in Cyprus, sits on the board of directors for AmCham Cyprus. Addressing Exxon Mobil by name for its efforts in the region, current U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus Judith Garber gave a speech to AmCham Cyprus this past September.
“We are proud that two American companies — Exxon Mobil and Noble Energy — are participating in this game-changing development,” said Garber, according to a transcript of her remarks.
As the corporation — dubbed a “private empire” by investigative journalist Steve Coll — moved to shore up EU support for the deal, the U.S. also brokered a political agreement.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, last March, convened a meeting in Jerusalem with officials from Israel, Greece, and Cyprus to “affirm their shared commitment to promoting peace, stability, security, and prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean region.” The State Department’s release from the event noted that the leaders at the meeting “welcomed the recent natural gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean and its potential to contribute to energy security and diversification.”
The next month after the Jerusalem meeting, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced the bill. Menendez, according to Senate expense filings, traveled to Athens shortly after introducing the legislation to discuss the idea with Greek and Cypriot officials.
The public disclosures only show part of the story. But over the following months throughout the year, Exxon Mobil, Christians United for Israel, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, and American Jewish Committee mounted a sustained lobbying campaign with officials over the bill (which later became the provision).
For 2019, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association spent $15,000 during the second half of the year lobbying for the legislation and another bill that would prevent the U.S. Department of Defense from sending arms to Turkey. The AJC spent $30,000 lobbying for it and two other issues during the third quarter of 2019 alone. And CUFI, for its part, spent $90,000 lobbying for the legislation and other bills during the second half of the year. The group said in its fourth quarter filing that it pushed to get the legislation inserted into the budget bill.
That campaign called for the U.S. to lift the arms embargo on exports to Cyprus, which began in 1987 after a sustained lobbying campaign by the Turkish foreign agents in the U.S., known as one of the most robust foreign lobbying presences in Washington. Cyprus was divided following the Turkish occupation of the island in 1974 in response to a military coup engineered by the Greek government. The Turkish government calls its occupied territory the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is not internationally recognized.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus lobbied against the legislation, according to foreign agency lobbying documents, hiring the firm Prime Policy Group to act on its behalf. Prime Policy Group is the successor to Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly, a firm that was the namesake of two allies of President Donald Trump: Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.
Despite that opposition, the mix of foreign, pro-Israel, and energy lobbying prevailed. Without debate over either the wisdom of lifting the arms embargo or the exclusionary development of Cyprus gas fields in the hands of a few regional governments, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. — citing the bill’s bipartisan support — signaled approval for the vast majority of it to be included in the spending bill. (The spending bill removed language denouncing Russia’s arming Turkey with an S-400 fighter missile defense system last July.)
Concerns about the climate crisis and methane emissions associated with offshore gas drilling, too, went undiscussed. Methane is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide when emitted.
Pompeo was scheduled to appear in Cyprus to celebrate the signing of the legislative text, which boosted the new pipeline deal and the lifted of the arms embargo. The trip, however, was canceled because of assassination of Iran Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.
Menendez then met with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on January 8, the day after Mitsotakis met with Trump, with Menendez presenting him a copy of the legislation for a photo opportunity. The senator received $36,500 in defense industry political action committee campaign contributions during his successful 2018 reelection bid cycle, garnering more than $10,000 in campaign contributions from General Atomics, producer of the MQ-9 drones that will continue to be stationed at the military base in Greece under the legislation’s dictates.
For his part, Rubio received $17,951 in campaign contributions from Exxon Mobil during his 2016 reelection bid and another $27,900 from General Atomics during that same cycle. Neither Menendez nor Rubio responded to repeated requests for comment for this story.
Belén Balanyá, a researcher and campaigner for the group Corporate Europe Observatory, said the passage of this bill symbolizes the clout that Exxon Mobil has within the EU political process.
“ExxonMobil’s lobbying, direct and in association with other dirty fossil fuel companies and their huge web of lobby groups, has helped lock the EU into fossil-fuel dependency for another 30 years,” Balanyá said via email. “That’s why we have launched together with other groups the Fossil Free Politics campaign, where, similar to existing restrictions on tobacco industry lobbyists, we demand a firewall between decision makers and the fossil fuel lobby. Only then can we take the real action we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.”
This piece was co-published with The Real News.