The case follows the jailing in China last month of staff from rival Rio Tinto and comes as both mining giants seek regulatory approval for a $116bn (£75bn) Australian joint venture.
“This is probably the last thing they need at this point in time,” said Tim Schroeders, fund manager with Pengana Capital, referring to BHP’s need to keep international regulators onside as it looks to combine its main iron ore operations in western Australia with those of Rio Tinto.
BHP said the possible “violations” came through its staff becoming involved in “interactions with government officials.” The firm said it was now cooperating with SEC and carrying out its own internal probe.
It added the exploration projects in question had been terminated before December 2008, were “relatively small” and were not related to any activities in China.
“It is not possible at this time to predict the scope or duration of the investigation,” the company added.
The SEC declined to comment.