Total settles oil and gas underpayment allegations

by Ben Vernia | February 22nd, 2012

In yet another partial resolution of the whistleblower suit of the late Harrold Wright, the Department of Justice announced on February 22 that companies associated with Total will pay $15 million:

Total Fina S.A., Total Minatome Corporation, Total Exploration Production USA Inc., Fina Oil and Chemical Company, Elf Exploration Inc., Total E&P USA I nc. and their affiliates have agreed to pay the United States $15 million to resolve claims that the companies violated the False Claims Act by knowingly underpaying royalties owed on natural gas produced from federal and Indian leases, the Justice Department announced today.

Congress has authorized federal and Indian lands to be leased for the production of natural gas in exchange for the payment of royalties on the value of the gas that is produced. Each month, companies are required to report and pay to the U.S. Department of the Interior the amount of royalty that is due. This settlement resolves claims by the United States under the False Claims Act that the Total defendants improperly deducted from royalty values the cost of boosting gas up to pipeline pressures, improperly reported processed gas as unprocessed gas to reduce royalty payments, and engaged in a variety of other under-reporting of royalties that had been the subject of a series of outstanding administrative actions.

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Total, the fifth largest publicly-traded integrated international oil and gas company in the world, has operations in more than 130 countries, and engages in all aspects of the petroleum industry, including oil and gas exploration, development and production, refining, marketing, trading and shipping. The Total and Fina corporate families merged in 1999, and became known as Total Fina. In 2000, the company acquired Elf Aquitaine.

The last such settlement was with BP Amoco in September 2011. There have been six settlements announced, and this one brings the total recovery to approximately $285 million for both the federal government and Indian tribes.

The whistleblower’s heirs will receive a small sum of money – $23,000 – representing 25% of the $92,000 assigned to his claims. (The federal government acts as trustee for Indian interests, and so does not pay relator’s share on recoveries for those.)

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