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Fossil fuel lobbying reaches staggering levels while Fort McMurray burns

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Photo: Michael Stewart

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In this very moment, actions are taking place around the world to break away from fossil fuel dependency. This movement is part of the global Break Free Campaign. From Nigeria to Brazil, New Zealand to Indonesia, Turkey to South Africa, a surge of people power is urging governments to keep oil, gas, and coal in the ground, and embrace a renewable energy future.

Meanwhile in Fort McMurray, Alberta, the heart of Canada's fossil fuel industry, a manic wildfire bigger than Hong Kong is raging and waging the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. As compassionate hearts pour out in solidarity with the over 80,000 Fort McMurray residents that have had to flee their homes, a climate narrative around natural disasters is beginning to emerge.

Fort McMurray is embedded in the surrounding boreal forest. While these boreal regions have always been prone to fires, the warming temperatures in our changing climate, a shrinking and melting snowpack, and increasingly parched forests have created the circumstances for angrier and lengthier wildfire seasons.

The dark irony of this natural disaster is that, while the tar sands industry, symbolically headquartered in Fort McMurray, spews heat trapping gases into the atmosphere on the daily, and this most recent wildfire knocks thousands of carbon trapping old age forests to the ground, we can only agonize that the situation will get worse.

The gravity of these natural disasters show us that we need to yank the fossil fuel industry out of climate politics.

Fossil fuel industry lobbying reaches staggering proportions

In staggering proportions, the fossil fuel industry is lobbying governments to make sure their voices resound, while others can barely whisper. In Canada, between summer 2008 and fall 2012, 35 petroleum industries, as front runners of the fossil fuel industry, lobbied the federal government, with 2,700 reports of communications with Canadian politicians, as reported by the Polaris Institute.

The most recent data on the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada, registers that six of the largest fossil fuel companies and industry representatives operating in Canada (Suncor, Enbridge, TransCanada, Imperial Oil, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association) have already registered 268 monthly communications collectively with politicians.

The topics of these fossil fuel lobbying interventions include climate change policy, consultation with indigenous peoples, as well as specific environmental legislation including the Species at Risk Act, National Marine Conservation Areas Act, Migratory Birds Convention Act, and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, among countless others.

These interventions, however, are far from benign. They entice governments to look away from natural resource depletion, species extinction, global warming, deforestation, water contamination, biodiversity loss, and instead keep drilling blindly, with no foresight to tomorrow. In a recent publication by the West Coast Environmental Law Association and the Quebec Environmental Law Centre, their analysis noted that "industry lobbied hard for removing environmental protections" that stood between them and their bottom-line of profits.

From 2012 onward environmental legislation slipped into a state of despair and decay. Omnibus bills C-38 and C-45, put forth by the Conservative government, effectively wiped out the vast majority of environmental legislation.

Overnight, 99 per cent of Canada's lakes and rivers were removed from the protection of the Navigable Waters Protection Act. The Kyoto Protocol (the only legislation requiring the limiting of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada) was repealed. Over 3,000 environmental reviews were discarded from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. Public participation in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency was greatly limited. Time limits for the protection of species at risk were removed in the Species at Risk Act, and protection of many fish species and habitats was removed from the Fisheries Act.

This crumbling of legislation means more than solely environmental degradation. It tells the story of a failing democracy. One that subscribes to the whims of a powerful industry rather than the voice of itspeople; one that succumbs to influence rather than equity and justice.

As the environmental regulations become diluted to near obsolescence, money continues to pour into the fossil fuel industry. In Canada, fossil fuel subsidies hover around $2.7 billion in national subsidies and $2.7 billion in public finance, according to a report by the Overseas Development Institute and Oil Change International published in 2015.

Accompanying these subsidies are countless tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry, for geological surveys, exploration, field development, drilling and extraction. Globally, G20 countries provide $452 billion per year in fossil fuel subsidies. This number is roughly four times the amount that is subsidised for renewable energy.

There is nothing neutral about these accounts. Together the fervour-filled lobbying and the hefty subsidies dished out to fossil fuel industries are what allow for the demise of our democracies and our environment. These lobbies and these dollars shape the way stories are told. They contort truths and manipulate facts and create devastating consequences for environmental policy, social equity and the meaningful participation of civil society.

As we watch the symbolic oil city burning, we must do more than feel the sting of empathy. We must look to the not-so-distant future and wonder if this is just the beginning. We must stretch our compassion to concrete solutions.

As the federal government prepares to draft its vision for Canada's climate future, we must ensure there is a swell of people power creating our legislation -- and not the fossil fuel industry who seeks to profit from the dismantling of it.

This means a repeal of the archaic federal bills that trap us into climate plunder, full disclosure of lobbyists' financial spending, and a separation of the fossil fuel industry from political meddling.

Otherwise, with few means of recovery, democracy will continue to tumble dangerously toward fossil fuel disaster. 

Seble Samuel is an Ethiopian-Canadian geographer and anthropologist who covers climate change and social equity issues. This coming fall she is beginning an MSc in Environmental Change and Management at the University of Oxford.

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Photo: Michael Stewart

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