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Why corporate power is a problem at the climate crossroads

Earlier this month, we announced the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) had awarded $2.5 million in grant funding for Mapping the Power of the Carbon-Extractive Corporate Resource Sector, a research partnership jointly led by Parkland Institute, the University of Victoria, and the BC and Saskatchewan offices of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). In the first of two blogs, project co-directors Shannon Daub and Bill Carroll explain why the project is necessary in the context of the climate crisis.

As world leaders gather in Paris for the UN climate conference, the spotlight is being turned on the fossil fuel industry’s tremendous economic and political clout. The COP21 talks are sponsored by some decidedly climate-unfriendly multinationals, prompting the watchdog group Corporate Accountability International to launch a petition – signed by nearly 400,000 people and counting – to kick climate polluters out of the talks.

Concern about corporate influence at the talks is certainly warranted. The Polaris Institute has extensively documented the ways corporations and pro-business lobby groups have inserted themselves into every level of UN climate deliberations in recent years. And as a recent report by London-based Influence Map finds, global energy giants like Shell and BP continue to work behind the scenes against meaningful climate action by governments, despite public claims to support greenhouse gas reduction measures.

It remains to be seen how strong a role Canada will play in the talks, and how ambitious our newly elected government will be on federal climate policy here at home. Trudeau and his ministers are broadcasting many positive signals. But it was only last month that Liberal Party campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier resigned after it was revealed he’d been advising TransCanada on how to lobby a new government about its proposed Energy East tar sands pipeline.

The mid-campaign resignation is a reminder that the cozy relationship between fossil fuel companies and the federal government is unlikely to be severed anytime soon. After all, Gagnier’s ties to the energy industry were no secret – according to him, the Liberals knew about his consulting contract with TransCanada.

Gagnier is also past president of the (now-defunct) Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC), a lobby group whose members included major oil and gas companies like TransCanada, Shell and Suncor, as well as other industry heavyweights like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. EPIC played a central role in developing restrictive new rules, enacted in 2012, that limit public participation in both federal environmental assessments and National Energy Board hearings. It also lobbied federal and provincial governments to adopt its decidedly industry-friendly national energy strategy.

This is just one example from the vast labyrinth of fossil fuel industry connections to governments and public institutions – only some of which are visible to the public.

Lobbying activities and corporate donations to political parties are among the most obvious ways oil, gas and coal companies exert influence. A report published earlier this year by the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE) found that of the nearly 1,000 lobbyists registered to TSX60 corporations, the majority are lobbying for oil and gas companies. Oil, gas and coal companies are also among the biggest donors to provincial political parties (such contributions to federal parties and parties in Alberta are now banned). Natural gas giant Encana gave over $100,000 to the BC Liberals in the 2013 provincial election, while tar sands player Cenovus gave over $13,000 to the Alberta Progressive Conservatives in 2015, and oil and gas company Crescent Point gave over $50,000 to the Saskatchewan Party in 2011.

Other connections are more subtle, such as the revolving door between corporations and governments that recently saw a former Alberta environment minister appointed president of the Coal Association of Canada, and that saw a former CEO of Encana join Christy Clark’s transition team when she became Premier of British Columbia in 2011. The industry also funnels money to dozens of associations, think tanks and public institutions like universities – much of which is difficult or impossible to track.

Beyond efforts to shape what governments do, the fossil fuel industry is also waging a battle for hearts and minds. Whether it’s on climate change, environmental regulation, energy policy, or questions of economic security and jobs, corporations and corporate-backed groups deploy tremendous resources to shape public attitudes and perceptions. They do this through ostensibly citizen-driven organizations (such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producer’s “Energy Citizens”), advertising campaigns (like Enbridge’s “Life Takes Energy”), seeking “social license” for specific mine or pipeline developments (such as Enbridge’s failed attempt to claim widespread First Nations support for the Northern Gateway pipeline), and donations to public schools (like Chevron’s strings-attached offer of money to cash-strapped school boards in BC), to name just a few.

These examples point to a reality that few outside the fossil fuel sector itself would deny: the corporations that dominate this industry wield enormous power and influence.

Understanding the extent of the industry’s economic, political and social power also requires a complete picture of how the sector is structured, financed, and connected to the broader global corporate system. Meaning, we need a detailed picture of the fossil fuel corporate network that tells us who the key companies are, who owns them, where they are based, how they are connected to each other, who is bankrolling their operations, and how they are connected to governments, think tanks, lobby groups, universities, media organizations and other points of influence.

Of equal interest is how these corporate interests are being resisted, and who is leading such efforts.  Central to this question is the issue of Aboriginal rights and title, the reality of which may well be the most powerful spanner in the works of business as usual. We need to better understand the efforts of resource corporations to “buy” the support of First Nations, as well as the remarkable decisions by First Nations to turn down such “offers”, despite pressing economic and employment needs.

Getting serious about climate change means shifting off fossil fuels within a generation, which in turn requires ambitious action by federal and provincial governments within their current mandates (for example, see the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative's Marc Lee’s 12-point climate plan for the new federal government). Whether we can make that leap when the very companies that have profited so handsomely from extracting fossil fuels wield such tremendous power is a profound democratic challenge.

This is the first of two posts about the Corporate Mapping Project. Read part two here.

Shannon Daub

Shannon Daub is the director of CCPA-BC and co-director of the Corporate Mapping Project. Her research interests include social movements, framing, environmental communication, corporate power, and democratic capacity.

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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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