In letters received this week, eight companies have been asked by the Senate's corporate tax avoidance inquiry to detail their networks of international subsidiaries and reveal the value of funds moved between countries over the past five years.
Chevron Australia Holdings did not pay any tax last year, despite an operating income of $3.2 billion, and even claimed a refund from the Tax Office.
US-based Chevron and ExxonMobil, owners of the mammoth Gorgon liquefied natural gas project in Western Australia, which will transform Australia into the world's biggest LNG exporter by 2018, are among the companies asked to make submissions ahead of likely public hearings of the tax avoidance committee.
Cost blowouts on the $US54 billion ($73 billion) Gorgon project already top $US17 billion – all of which will be tax deductible after gas revenues start flowing later this year.
The other companies are Caltex, BP, Woodside, Santos, Origin and Viva Energy, the company established to operate Shell's retail petrol business and remaining refinery operations.
As political debate in Australia rages about an appropriate level of government support for renewable energy, the traditional energy companies will be asked to account for money flows out of Australia.
The Senate committee has tried and so far failed to unmask the energy company that transferred $11 billion to Singapore in a single financial year, 2011-12, as revealed by Fairfax Media in April.
A single line in Note 16 of Chevron's latest consolidated financial accounts shows it holds $US35.7 billion in "undistributed earnings …. for which no deferred income tax provision has been made". This accounting term is otherwise known as "unrepatriated profits" or money held in low-tax and no-tax jurisdictions.
The company lists 40 subsidiaries, including in the tax havens of Bermuda and the Bahamas, as well as the low-tax jurisdictions of Singapore and the US state of Delaware.
But in Bermuda alone, there are 279 incorporated business names beginning with the word Chevron. They include companies that appear to be linked to the $US54 billion Gorgon operation, Chevron LNG Shipping Company Limited, Chevron Marketing & Trading Limited and Chevron Australia Transport Pty Ltd.
The company is also locked in a protracted court battle with the Australian Taxation Office over $322 million in unpaid taxes in Australia between 2004 and 2008. The case is a landmark "transfer pricing" matter whereby multinationals load up divisions in high-tax countries like Australia and then charge inflated interest costs to channel untaxed money to low-tax jurisdictions.
Chevron Australia Holdings, which had operating income of $3.2 billion last year, paid no tax and instead claimed a $5.7 million refund from the ATO.
A spokeswoman did not address detailed questions but said: "Chevron abides by a stringent code of business ethics, under which we comply with all applicable laws and regulations in the countries in which we operate."
ExxonMobil, which owns 25 per cent of the Gorgon project, holds $US51 billion in unrepatriated profits and has subsidiaries across the globe, including 24 registered in Bermuda, including those under the names Mobil and Esso.
Ahead of the G20 summit last year, Treasurer Joe Hockey branded as "thieves" multinationals that avoid paying tax in the countries where they generate profit. But in speech on Wednesday he also echoed comments earlier in the year by Chevron managing director Roy Krzywosinski that "lower taxes provide a great conduit for new investment and entrepreneurship".
Mark Zirnsak, the Uniting Church's representative of the Tax Justice Network said: "Oil and gas is another sector that uses secrecy jurisdictions with no tax or low tax to shift profits from places where they are doing business to places where they are not doing business."
Paddy Crumlin, President of the International Transport Workers Federation, which represents workers on the Gorgon project, said: "The number of subsidiaries Chevron has in Bermuda is an enormous concern considering they are under intense scrutiny for sidestepping their national tax responsibilities in Australia."
The Senate committee, which has so far grilled the heads of Apple, Google and Microsoft, as well as the heads of nine multinational pharmaceutical companies, has asked three specific questions to be answered by July 29.
- How your company is related to any operations in foreign jurisdictions;
- How many subsidiaries are related to Australian operations, and where these subsidiaries are located;
- The value of transfers between these jurisdictions over the past 5 years and an explanation of those money flows.
Committee chairman, senator Sam Dastyari said: "Tax minimisation is not a victimless act. Every dollar of tax avoided through these strategies is a dollar not going to our schools and hospitals.''
Fairfax Media approached all eight companies for comment.
A spokeswoman for BP said: "BP will respond to the questions posed by the Senate committee, and our submission will be available by the end of July."