May 12, 2020
If the latest “investigative report” from a trio of Canadian anti-oil activists is any indicator, we should be worried about the state of investigative reporting.
Entitled “Who benefits from the oil sands?,” the simplistic report is the latest from Stand.earth, Environmental Defence and Équiterre. The activists claim revenues from the oil sands are “far more likely to line the pockets of foreign investors instead of Canadians,” with no mention that our energy sector has contributed more than $350 billion to government revenues since 2002, and they go on to claim more than 70 percent of oil sands production is held outside our borders.
Not surprisingly, the piece winds up with an audacious, widely discredited claim that Canadian taxpayers “are still paying giant subsidies to keep the industry afloat.”
Never mind that the authors appear to favour closing our economy to international investment, including the kind that comes from our regulated equities markets. My larger problem is with the report’s selective data.
While the Stand report purposefully uses old numbers to make their misleading arguments, there’s plenty of evidence of strong domestic oilsands investment on record, if the authors had been willing to look for it.
For example, a September 2017 piece by Chris Varcoe for the Calgary Herald titled “Foreign exodus from oilsands has followed investment frenzy” reveals Canadian ownership of the oilsands sat at 58 per cent in 2010, before dropping to 51 per cent by 2016.
Importantly, Varcoe reports Canadian ownership then rose to more than 80 per cent of all oilsands production, according to energy consultancy Wood MacKenzie. Similarly, in a March 2017 piece for JWN Energy, writer Deborah Jaremko observes that prior to several acquisitions by CNRL, Cenovus and Athabasca, for example, “Alberta Energy Regulator data shows that Canadian-headquartered companies owned about 67 percent of oilsands production.
“Following these transactions, that ownership number will have increased to about 80 percent.”
Today’s numbers, frankly, aren’t far off those easily accessible figures of three years ago.
But other initiatives that improve the corporate environmental bottom line are well underway. For example, the nebulous, easily-fudged case for extraordinary “fossil fuel incentives” became harder to make recently when Alberta’s Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) regulation set – and the feds accepted — a $30-per-tonne carbon tax on industrial emitters like oilsands facilities.
This move is important and builds on our record as the only top supplier of oil to the United States with carbon pricing going back to 2007. Activists have long called out the fossil fuel industry for failing to account for “externalities” – for example, the societal costs associated with emitting CO2 into the atmosphere at no charge. Without incentives to curtail this externality, the industry, activists said, was effectively being subsidized.
TIER decisively removes that particular “subsidy” from the table. Stand.Earth, Environmental Defense and Equiterre should be elated that CO2 emissions are accounted for in corporate reporting, resulting in huge reductions in CO2 emissions per barrel – as much as 22 percent since 2012.
Stand.Earth and its cohorts should be equally pleased Canada’s economy has been so strengthened by investments in our energy sector. When investments are curtailed and companies leave the country, Canadians lose their jobs, and families lose their security. Sadly for Canadians – activists and non-activists alike – many of these fleeing companies have gone on to invest in non-Canadian jurisdictions where weaker environmental standards are commonplace.
No one wins in that scenario. Not activists, nor the oil and gas sector, nor the Canadian taxpayer at large, nor the 800,000-plus Canadians who rely on the industry to feed their families, nor Indigenous communities whom activists sometimes cite as allies.
In a recent opinion editorial in the Globe and Mail, Chief Greg Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation in Northern Alberta put the activist myth to rest.
“There will not be an economic recovery without an oil and gas recovery. Canada doesn’t have the luxury of abandoning a sector that provides hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in government revenues. Ensuring the industry is supported will be one of the most important strategies for boosting Indigenous economies in the aftermath of the pandemic.”
The latest activist report is a great disappointment — not just to those who care about our country and its people, but also to anyone who admires good investigative reporting.
Cody Battershill is a Calgary realtor and founder / spokesperson for CanadaAction.ca, a built volunteer organization that supports Canadian energy development and the environmental, social and economic benefits that come with it.