Foreign influence on Canadian energy and environmental policy: A request for some balance

George Hoberg
November 9, 2011

Over the past several months, there has been increasing attention in the media on the role of US foundation funding of groups active in the Canadian environmental movement, including those involving the oil sands and associated pipelines such as the Northern Gateway pipeline. I believe these concerns are important, but it is time to bring some greater balance to the discussion.

Much of the information on US foundation funding has been uncovered by researcher and blogger Vivian Krause. According to Krauses’ blog, “since 2000 USA foundations have poured at least $300 million into the environmental movement in Canada.” Prominent mainstream media columnists have picked up on this research and used it to question the credibility of Canadian environmental organizations. This week, Calgary Herald business columnist Deborah Yeldin questioned the authenticity of opponents who have signed up to speak at the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings, and blasted US foundations for interfering in these Canadian disputes. She asks “whether the involvement, nay, interference, by U.S. foundations in the development of Canada’s natural resources constitutes a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement or of Canadian economic sovereignty.” She concludes with what sounds like a call to arms for Canadian nationalists: “At a minimum, Canadians should be outraged there are organizations based outside this country that feel they have the right to interfere in the development of Canada’s natural resources.”

A month ago, Vancouver Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe made a similar argument in a column entitled “Cash flow from U.S. to ‘green’ initiatives often hides private interests – Financial contributions sometimes thinly veiled attempts to help American industries gain unfair advantages over Canadian counterparts.” Yaffe argued “Canadians need to be aware that the long arm of American interests is behind many of the so-called grassroots protests taking place in Western Canada.”

I have a number of thoughts about these arguments. One is that the apparent dependence of the Canadian environmental movement on US foundations is dismaying. I wish more of their funding came from donations from members or charitable foundations in Canada. Second, there is little question that funding from US foundations has increased the capacity and influence of the Canadian environmental movement. Third, I find the arguments made by Krause and Yaffe that there is some kind of illicit commercial interest behind US foundations support for the Canadian environmental movement far-fetched.

We need to bring some perspective into the discussion of US and foreign influence in Canadian environmental and resource policy. The notion that foreign influence is on the side of environmentalists and in opposition to corporate interests in resource development is bizarre. Foreign ownership of the Canadian resource sector has been significant and long-standing. Statistics Canada keeps statistics on foreign ownership. The table below shows foreign ownership statistics for the 2009, the most recent year for which data are available. More than a third of assets in the Canadian oil and gas sector are foreign owned, and foreign-owned companies received 51% of all revenues in the sector. Here’s the membership list for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

% under foreign control (2009)
Assets – all industries 19.6
Assets – oil and gas extraction and related activities 35.3
Operating revenues – all industries 28.5
Operating revenues — oil and gas extraction and related activities 51.1
Profits – all industries 20.1
Profits — oil and gas extraction and related activities 41.3

These foreign-owned companies are certainly highly active in attempting to influence Canadian natural resource policy. Here is just one example of Chinese pressure being felt by Canadian policy-makers. Yedlin argues we “should be outraged organizations based outside this country that feel they have the right to interfere in the development of Canada’s natural resources.” Let’s just be sure when considering foreign influence, we are not only talking about US philanthropic foundations, but foreign-owned oil companies as well.

The Northern Gateway pipeline is proposed by Enbridge, a Canadian company, to ship diluted bitumen from Canadian and multinational oil companies in Alberta to Chinese or Californian refineries. It seems remarkable  that media attention has been focused on US foundation influence on the Canadian environmental movement and ignored foreign influence of oil companies with billion dollar stakes in the issue.

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8 Responses to Foreign influence on Canadian energy and environmental policy: A request for some balance

  1. Danielle says:

    What Ms. Krause conveniently ignores or forgets, is that fact that when it comes to Northern Gateway it is not “Canada’s natural resources”, they are in fact First Nations’ – as the majority of the pipeline and tanker route cross unceded lands and waters. The ENGOs are simply supporting the position of the First Nations that are opposed to the project. So the question of where the funds come from to stop this project and protect our lands and waters, may be a moot point. But the racist/condescending undertones seem to always be that First Nations are somehow being used by or taken advantage of by ENGOs and US foundations. The fact is that the majority of First Nations took their position more than 6 years ago, long before ENGOs or US funders became active on Gateway.

  2. Duncan Kinney says:

    In a perfect world we’d have a breakdown on just how much these foreign owned companies oil had spent on media campaigns and lobbying as well. I reckon the numbers would dwarf those on the other side.

    At the very least it might be interesting poking around the various lobbyist registries. Does BC have one?

  3. Michele Patterson says:

    Nice to see your thoughts on this point George. I hope you’re doing well.


  4. Jeff Lewis says:

    Good analysis. Leaving aside Suncor, CNRL and a smattering of junior outfits, much of the development in and around Fort McMurray is being steered by American-headquartered multinationals.

    But the dearth of Canadian ownership you bring up is hardly unique to the oil sands. As Canadians we seem to excel at selling our best and brightest to the highest (and sometimes the lowest) bidder around. See: Inco, Falconbridge, Dofasco, Stelco, Algoma Steel, MacMillan-Bloedel, Molson, Alcan, Ipsco, Gulf Canada, Newbridge Networks, Poco Petroleums and Masonite.

    Not sure what the end-game is here. But a worrying trend all the same.

  5. Pingback: Pressure Rising on Both Sides of Northern Gateway Oil Sands Pipeline: December 2011 Update | GreenPolicyProf

  6. Andrew says:

    George, I note with interest the last sentence of your article.

    It is not remarkable whatsoever that media are focused on environmental groups instead of oil companies. Oil companies are entirely predictable because all they ever try to do is make money. They are inherently simple organizations to understand. Their behaviour is frankly boring and does not warrant much in the way of media attention.

    Environmental groups, however, are far more erratic. They are vastly more complex organisms and are often highly unpredictable at the operational level. Their limited funds, shifting mandates and occasional bouts of activism make them far more worthy of media attention.

    I dont think Krause et al are trying to say that oil companies are whiter than white, just that ENGOs sometimes have a few skeletons in the closet too.

  7. Colin N says:

    I’m sure, if it was possible to go deeper and look at the identies of the investors (owners/shareholders) of all petroleum producers (Canadian and foreign), the foreign ownership % would be even higher than 35.3% – so-called Canadian Companies like Suncor, etal, are owned by shareholders, looking for growth of capital and dividends – many of their shareholders will be individual and institutions outside Canada, hence those so-called Canadian companies are motivated by those shareholders. And that foreign ownership is constantly growing.

  8. Pingback: Foreign Ownership also puts lie to Ethical Oil « Deathical Oil

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