French oil company Total navigates D.C. for first time
WASHINGTON — Oil companies are a ubiquitous presence in Washington, where small battalions of lobbyists are assigned to keep their ears to the ground while trying to influence policies where they can. So, it came as some surprise when the French oil giant Total sent out invitations for a reception commemorating the opening of its first office in the U.S. capital.
“It’s a little strange,” CEO Patrick Pouyanne pointed out. “We are not such a new company.”
Founded in Paris almost a century ago, Total is one of the largest oil companies in Europe, competing alongside the likes of Royal Dutch Shell, the Italian company Eni and the British oil major BP, the latter of which maintains a modern LEED certified office in between the White House and the Capitol,
where it hosts consultants, political staffers and even reporters for events. But despite having had operations in the United States for more than 60 years and maintaining a sizable office in the Total Plaza building in downtown Houston, Total had long avoided a permanent presence in Washington. As the reception got underway in one of Washington’s older social clubs, one Total executive explained it as “the old way,” a quirk of earlier executives who tended toward a Eurocentric view of the world.
But with the ascendancy of Pouyanne, a 55-year old former French bureaucrat who took over after the death of former CEO Christophe de Margerie in 2014, Total has turned westward.
Speaking to guests in between hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, Pouyanne said he is a regular in Washington since becoming CEO, traveling here to meet with U.S. authorities and even join the Brooking Institution, a liberal think tank. And now with opening of a modest-size office of six people, Pouyanne said he hoped more Total employees “would benefit from all this life here.”
“We are just repairing a mistake that should have been done much earlier,” he said. “It’s important for us to understand how the world is seen from other places, not just Paris and Europe.”
At the same time, Total has expanded its U.S. operations, buying stakes in shale fields in Texas and Ohio from Chesapeake Energy. Last month, Total announced it was entering into an exploration deal in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico with Chevron. It also operates a refinery at Port Arthur and petrochemical operations along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast. Total counts more than 7,000 employees in the United States — for context, that is a little more than half what the online car service Uber employs.
That has brought Total squarely into the U.S. political space and potentially at odds with President Donald Trump.
Among Total’s U.S. holdings is the solar manufacturer SunPower, which is headquartered in California, with manufacturing plants in Malaysia and the Philippines. Trump will soon decide whether to place tariffs on foreign-made solar panels to protect domestic manufacturers, which have argued before the U.S. International Trade Commission that they’re being squeezed out by low-cost panels from abroad.
Pouyanne, enjoying his newly minted Washington operation, gleefully explained to the crowd that such a tariff was likely to slow solar development in the U.S., killing many more jobs than would be saved.
“I’m sorry. I should not have said this. They told me don’t make any comments,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.
“We are just repairing a mistake that should have been done much earlier.” Patrick Pouyanne, CEO of Total