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Who owns and benefits from Canada’s fossil-fuel sector?

This op-ed by Corporate Mapping Project researchers Bill Carroll and Jouke Huijzer appeared in Vancouver Province on October 21, 2018.

Canadian interests, including banks, may now own and control a substantial share of the sector, yet rather than representing the national interest of Canadians, these owners pursue their own interests in maximizing immediate profits from extracting and processing fossil fuels.

Many Canadians, politicians and business people in particular, are quick to tout the value of the fossil-fuel sector to our national economy. But who primarily benefits from these industries?

The major investors in Canada’s fossil-fuel sector (oil, bitumen, gas and coal) have high stakes in maintaining business as usual, rather than addressing the industry’s serious climate change issues.

Our just-published Corporate Mapping Project report, Who Owns Canada’s Fossil-Fuel Sector? Mapping the Network of Ownership and Control, shows that substantial ownership and strategic control of our fossil-fuel sector is in the hands of a few major players. These shareholders have both an interest in the sector’s continued growth and the economic power to shape its future.

The powerful interests that dominate fossil-fuel activities in Canada include:

  • foreign-based fossil-fuel transnationals (notably Exxon Mobil, owner of both Imperial Oil and ExxonMobil Canada, and Royal Dutch Shell, owner of Shell Canada);
  • Canadian banks (notably Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank and Bank of Montreal);
  • wealthy families such as the Montreal-based Desmarais family who control investment company Power Corporation of Canada;
  • asset management firms such as BlackRock Inc. and Capital Group (both based in the U.S.).

Rising levels of Canadian corporate ownership and control of the sector appear to have made little difference in how the industry functions. Decades ago, foreign control of Canada’s energy sector (and other sectors) was seen as a threat to Canadian self determination and democracy, but the trend toward more Canadian corporate control of fossil-fuel extraction and production has made little difference in how the industry functions.

Canadian interests, including banks, may now own and control a substantial share of the sector, yet rather than representing the national interest of Canadians, these owners pursue their own interests in maximizing immediate profits from extracting and processing fossil fuels.

Shareholdings, however, are not the only capital relations between high finance and big carbon.

Canadian banks are major lenders to the fossil-fuel sector. To illustrate the scale of the loans, consider that from 2017 until the federal government purchase in May 2018, the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project had a $5.5-billion loan facility agreement with the five Canadian big banks. Without such financial enablement, megaprojects such as the proposed pipeline could not be mounted.

The urgency to respond to climate change cannot be understated. We agree with the leading divestment group 350.org that financial institutions must end lines of credit and project loans for fossil-fuel infrastructure like new pipelines and fracking drill rigs. This, in effect, would keep the carbon in the ground. Even Suncor, the second-largest producer of fossil fuels in Canada, acknowledges that some reserves are best left underground.

Our report maps the ownership network and interests of fossil-fuel companies in Canada, revealing who the key players are and how their stakes are configured. This is information that we are pleased to add to the literature about the urgency to respond to climate change before it’s too late.

M. Jouke Huijzer

M. Jouke Huijzer worked as a research assistant for the Corporate Mapping Project at the University of Victoria in the fall of 2015. Currently he is pursuing a PhD at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

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William Carroll

Dr. William Carroll is a critical sociologist at the University of Victoria, with research interests in the areas of social movements and social change as well as the political economy of corporate capitalism. He was a founding participant in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Cultural, Social and Political Thought and currently serves as Director of the Interdisciplinary Minor/Diploma Program in Social Justice Studies. He has been awarded the Canadian Sociology Association's John Porter Memorial Prize twice: in 1988 for Corporate Power and Canadian Capitalism and in 2006 for Corporate Power in a Globalizing World. He is a co-director of the Corporate Mapping Project.

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