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Big Oil Distorts Discourse To Fuel Its Bottom Line

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We've all seen a chart like it: logos of corporations connected by thin lines to other logos, linking dozens of subsidiaries to spin-offs of even larger companies.

But such diagrams -- whether they attempt to illustrate the concentration of media ownership or linking music record companies to arms manufacturers -- rarely involve Canada or the fossil fuel companies that dominate lobbying and other political efforts.

The Corporate Mapping Project, co-directed by Shannon Daub of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and William Carroll of the University of Victoria, aims to remedy that.

"We need to have a conversation about how these forms of concentrated power can be problematic for democratic processes in terms of decision-making and the citizenry collectively determining its future," says Carroll, sociology professor at the University of Victoria.

"To the extent that you have very strong concentrations of corporate power in key sectors of the economy, it limits the boundaries of permissible discourse: what can be said, what can be discussed openly."

Project Maps 238 Fossil Fuel Companies in Canada

The Corporate Mapping Project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, just concluded the first of its six years.

In that time, the project analyzed more than $50 million in corporate assets and "mapped" 238 Canadian corporations centred in the fossil fuel sector (which linked out to a total of 1,258 total corporations based in Canada and abroad).

Going far beyond simply connecting, say, Suncor and Syncrude, the project examines companies at the level of governance, tracking what Carroll dubs the "elite networks" of corporate executives and directors.

The project features another three strands that will be explored over the course of the next half-decade.

One will examine the reach of corporate influence into civil and political society, impacting and helping shape entities like think tanks, foundations, industry groups, lobby groups, universities and research institutes. A subsect of that will explore how corporations push certain discourses via advertising, corporate social responsibility reports and press releases.

Another will look at commodity chains, how power is organized within chains of production and the "flashpoints" of protest such as anti-Northern Gateway blockades and less place-specific movements such as fossil fuel divestment campaigns.

Corporate Connections to be Posted on Wiki Community

Rounding out the quartet will be the actual collection and transmitting of the learnings.

Carroll says an online interactive tool will be developed with a wiki community to keep it up to date, similar to how data is presented by the Public Accountability Initiative (a U.S. nonprofit that research connections between corporations and government).

There are a dozen or so co-investigators that form the core team for the Corporate Mapping Project. Partners include Unifor, the University of Alberta, Simon Fraser University, the University of Lethbridge and the University of Regina.

It's a sizable project. As Carroll notes, such resources are much needed given the changing landscape of new provincial and federal governments, the collapse in the global price of oil and the recent Paris climate change agreement.

Then there's the fierce debate over TransCanada's Energy East pipeline, pitting Alberta's NDP government against Indigenous communities, climate activists and the provinces of Québec and Ontario.

TransCanada used 'Bullying' and 'Attempts to Buy People Out'

It's a situation that well represents why the Corporate Mapping Project is so necessary and why its organizers are bringing Éric Pineault -- sociology professor at Université du Québec à Montréal and author of the recently released "The Energy East Trap" -- to Vancouver and Victoria for a series of free lectures titled "Extreme Oil: Corporate Power, Tar Sands Expansion, and the Capitalist Pressure to Extract."

Pineault says TransCanada started its pitch for Energy East to local residents with "bullying and trying buy people out."

Documents leaked to Greenpeace show TransCanada hired public relations giant Edelman to concoct a fake grassroots advocacy campaign designed to persuade the public to support Energy East. The scandal led TransCanada and Edelman to eventually part ways.

Since the federal Liberal government was elected, the company has entered a "seduction phase," according to Pineault. But the underlying intentions of the company -- which also owns the proposed Keystone XL pipeline -- is the same: to increase shareholder value.

Such an ownership structure means the "progressive extractivism" agenda that suggests increased hydrocarbon production is required to fund the transition to a "greener economy" is almost doomed to fail.

"It ties you in and can co-opt... your transition." He added, "I think [Alberta's] Notley government is going in that direction."

Private Ownership Makes Transition to Renewables Far More Difficult

Pineault argues that pipelines such as Energy East will likely be around for many decades and suck up investment, research efforts and competent workers that could otherwise be directed to renewable projects. In addition, efficiencies may be developed to "green" hydrocarbon production instead of cutting down on emissions from heating and transportation.

"If it was a publicly controlled sector, then you could plan this phase-in, phase-out approach," he says. "You can't do that with private capital: they consider they're sitting on assets that are worth billions and the value of these assets must be realized on a 60- or 70-year cycle."

"They're going to do everything they can to keep that cycle going as long as they can."

Which is why it seems fairly important to know who's calling the shots, what kind of tactics are being deployed and what entities are being potentially harnessed to promote a company's agenda.

That's where the Corporate Mapping Project comes in. After all, it's pretty difficult to break those thin lines if you don't even know they exist.

Tickets to Pineault's free lectures are available online. RSVP details below:


Wednesday May 18, 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM

SFU Harbour Centre (Hastings & Seymour)

Free but you need a ticket:


Friday May 20, 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM

Legacy Gallery (630 Yates St)

Free but you need a ticket:

- James Wilt, DeSmog Canada

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