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The oilsands' other dirty little secret: Canadians hardly own them

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An oil sands plant in Fort McMurray, Alberta, in 2012. Image: kris krüg​/Flickr

It's the other dirty little secret of the oil sands: Foreign companies and their shareholders are benefitting from the huge dividends produced by Alberta's vast bitumen sand deposits while Canadians are stuck with the vast bill for the cleanup.

It's like a latter-day update on one of those country and western hurtin' songs we love so much out here in Wild Rose Country: They get the goldmine, we get the shaft.

So while it's shocking, the facts released in a report yesterday by three prominent environmental organizations aren't exactly a shock.

The report by Stand.earth, Environmental Defence and Équiterre -- "Who Benefits? An Investigation of Foreign Ownership in the Oil Sands" -- indicates that the money is going exactly where you'd expect it to go when more than 70 per cent of Alberta's oil sands production is owned by foreign corporations. To wit, into foreign pockets.  

So it's time, argued Stand.earth international program director Tzeporah Berman in an online news conference, that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party government "stop wasting time and money on war rooms and propping up oil companies like Suncor and CNRL who claim to be Canadian but are sucking this country dry."

"Premier Kenney has used his bully pulpit to attack Canadians that are concerned about the climate and the toxic mess being left behind by the oil and gas industry of somehow being unpatriotic," Berman said. "This research shows clearly that the majority of revenues from the oil sands are going to foreign investors while Canadians are left paying for the cleanup."

"Oil and gas companies are delivering lower and lower social benefits to Canadians, with jobs, corporate taxes and royalties all plummeting even as the industry expands production," agreed another participant in the newser, Dale Marshall, national climate program manager of Environmental Defence. "Even before COVID, oil and gas companies were getting rid of workers through mechanization. Those jobs are never coming back."

Of course, the fact foreigners are reaping most of the gains from the oil sands is a dirty little secret because basically everyone in the oil patch knows it's true. It's just not the sort of thing you're supposed to say in polite company in Alberta.

And that includes journalistic company, apparently. Y'all remember how upset Kenney got on April 24 when some reporter asked a question at a news conference about renewable energy and said the three little words every good Albertan is supposed to hate? You know, Green New Deal …

"When you talk about the Green New Deal, listen, our focus is on getting people back to work in Alberta, not pie-in-the-sky ideological schemes," Kenney harrumphed. "That kind of question, in the middle of an economic crisis, from a Calgary-based media outlet, really, frankly throws me for a loop. Sounds like you're reporting for The Tyee or something."

Just last week, Kenney was accusing former Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May of being "un-Canadian" for channeling oil industry voices that have privately conceded the market for Alberta's heavy oil is all but dead.

So we know where Kenney thinks the limits to acceptable speech in Alberta ought to be.

Still, it won't make him happy to hear one of Canada's most prominent environmentalists using her bully pulpit to note that in the first three quarters of last year, the big five oil sands corporations -- Suncor Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Cenovus Energy Inc., Imperial Oil Ltd. and Husky Energy Inc. -- shipped $8 billion to their mostly foreign shareholders.

U.S. interests alone own more than half the oil sands' production, she said. "If any one group is calling the shots in Alberta … it's American."

"Even before the world was turned upside down by the first global pandemic in history, the oil and gas industry in Canada, despite rising production levels, was cutting jobs and paying less than royalties while demanding higher and higher subsidies," Berman said. "The majority of profits from the industry are leaving the country."

Now these are the sort of facts the UCP used to angrily dismiss as a "misinformation campaign of defamation." As Kenney said in his huffy Green New Deal riposte, "we are actually not trying to amplify, but to fight back against the political agenda of the green left that has been trying to landlock Alberta energy. So we're not going to cooperate with the folks that are trying to shut down Canada's single largest sector."

This is a misrepresentation, of course. Berman obviously understands that whatever the future holds, "Canada will produce oil for some time." The real question about the oil sands, she said, "is whether we should expand them."

"Whatever happens with the price of oil over the next 18 months, what's clear is that it doesn't make sense to be expanding this industry making workers and their families, even more vulnerable. … It doesn't make sense to shovel Canadian tax dollars to U.S. shareholders. We need a plan."

The report's conclusion -- the opposite of Kenney's, naturally -- is that "the oil sands are no longer in our national interest."

This is certainly outside the limits of respectable conversation as defined by Kenney. It's supposedly what the eerily silent inquiry into foreign-funded environmental campaigns and the COVID-shuttered war room were set up to counter.

These days, though, other than occasional outbursts from Premier Kenney when some reporter pushes his buttons, it's hard to hear much over the sound of the crickets. There was very little news coverage of the Stand.earth-Environmental Defence-Équiterre report last night.

Maybe it's that the coronavirus pandemic is sucking up all the oxygen in the newsroom.

Or maybe the UCP and its allies in media are realizing discretion is the better part of valour when it comes to a truth all but universally acknowledged.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: kris krüg​/Flickr

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