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We're putting fossil fuel industry influence under the microscope

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The tremendous concentration of power and influence we see in the fossil fuel industry today places sharp limits on our democracy (for examples, see our previous post). And as oil, gas and coal corporations pursue their relatively narrow, short-term profit goals, crafting effective responses to the climate crisis becomes more difficult.

One of the key steps we can take towards a more level democratic playing field is to create greater transparency. Knowledge of precisely how the industry is structured, and how our economic and political systems favour entrenched private interests over the public interest, is crucial. Without this knowledge we cannot have a meaningful discussion about democratic alternatives.

The Corporate Mapping Project promises to shine a bright light on the fossil fuel industry by investigating the ways in which corporate power is organized and exercised. The initiative is a partnership of academic and community-based researchers and advisors who share a commitment to advancing reliable knowledge that supports citizen action and transparent public policy making.

We focus on "mapping" how power and influence play out in the oil, gas and coal industries of B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan. We will also map the wider connections that link Western Canada's fossil fuel sector to other sectors of the economy (both national and global) and to other parts of society (governments and other public institutions, think tanks and lobby groups, etc).

A map is a guide that helps us find our way across terrain that can be disorienting and treacherous. Through mapping, we want to make corporate power and influence visible. Doing so can support communities, workers, First Nations and Aboriginal groups, civil society organizations and concerned citizens in their efforts to reshape our economy along more democratic and environmentally sustainable lines.

Our mapping efforts are focused in four key areas:

1. How are the people and companies that control fossil-fuel corporations organized as a network, and how does that network connect with other sectors of the Canadian and global economy? That is, how is economic power organized in and around the fossil-fuel sector?

2. How does that economic power reach into political and cultural life, though elite networks, funding relationships, lobbying and mass-media advertising and messaging? What are the implications of such corporate influence for politics and society?

3. How is corporate power wielded at ground level, from fossil-fuel extraction and transport right through to final consumption?  If we follow a barrel of bitumen from its source to the end user, how does it affect the communities and environments all along the way? How and why do certain links along these commodity chains become flashpoints of intense political struggle, as we have seen particularly with pipeline projects?

4. How can we build capacity for citizen monitoring of corporate power and influence, while expanding the space for democratic discussion?

Over the next six years, our partnership will answer these questions and make our research widely available. We will develop an open-source, publicly accessible database of who's who in and around the fossil-fuel sector, kept current by community researchers. And we will engage Canadians in a conversation about the role of the fossil fuel sector in our democracy.

We know that the climate crisis requires us to make a transition away from fossil fuels. The key questions are what sort of transition we will make, and how quickly. The answers hinge significantly on whether citizens, Indigenous people, workers and environmentalists are able to counterbalance the power and influence of the fossil-fuel sector. We and our partners in the Corporate Mapping Project look forward to providing the kinds of knowledge that can help fuel a just and timely transition.

This is the second of two posts about our project -- you can read part one here.

Bill Carroll and Shannon Daub are co-directors of the Corporate Mapping Project, a research alliance led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC and Saskatchewan Offices, and the Parkland Institute. The project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Photo: Ian Burt/flickr

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