French oil com­pany To­tal nav­i­gates D.C. for first time

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BUSINESS - james.os­ twit­­borneja JAMES OS­BORNE

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

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