“Corruption?!! We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection… Corruption is why we win.”
– Danny Dalton in the movie, Syriana
Gitxsan hereditary Chief Yvonne Lattie of the Gwininitxw house group was in National Observer’s offices this week describing how, even after decades of court victories and promises of reconciliation, her community doesn’t truly have a voice at the table
Chief Lattie and another hereditary chief, Charlie Wright of Luutkudziiwus, have launched a court challenge against Pacific NorthWest LNG’s plans to build a massive liquefied natural gas terminal near Lelu Island. The chiefs warn the project could trigger the collapse of the province’s wild salmon runs, which are among the largest in the world and a vital part of their culture.
As part of the LNG project, TransCanada plans to build a natural gas pipeline through the Gitxsan Nation’s traditional territory in Northern B.C., and Chief Lattie is particularly worried about plans to run a pipeline right under a lake. The community has been raising their voices for years but feel they just don’t get heard in the provincial capital.
Community voices are drowned out by decibels of oil and gas lobbying and piles of industry cash, quantified in a new study released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives this week. National Observer’s Carl Meyer reported on the truly stunning volume of lobbying and a “barrage” of oil and gas donations to Premier Christy Clark’s Liberal Party.
It’s so routine-seeming at this point that it’s gotten hard for many British Columbians to summon (more) outrage over the unlimited stream of political donations to the B.C. Liberals — the New York Times recently dubbed B.C. the “‘Wild West’ of Canadian Political Cash.”
But the sheer scale of fossil fuel influence revealed in the new research is shocking to us, even by Wild West standards:
- B.C. government officials are taking meetings and being lobbied 14 times per business day on average… just by the top ten most frequent companies and associations.
- 22,000 lobby sessions by fossil fuel companies and associations over the past six years.
- $5.2 million in political donations from fossil fuel companies and industry associations between 2008 and 2015.
- 92 per cent of those donations went to the B.C. Liberal Party.
- A majority of the fossil fuel companies and associations donating and lobbying are based outside B.C. (in Asia, the U.S. or Alberta).
B.C. has no limits on political donations. (Don’t worry, you got that right. Zero.)
Justin Trudeau recently had to back down following public outrage over $1,500 per plate fundraising dinners. Christy Clark’s most exclusive receptions cost as much as $20,000.
Foreigners, corporations and wealthy individuals are allowed to give freely to all political parties.
But it turns out that fossil fuel and mining interests are betting almost exclusively on one party these days.
What’s the average citizen to make of all this?
It’s beyond naive to think that any corporation, let alone one from outside the province, would give money away with no expectations. Or that the governing BC Liberals would feel no pressure to deliver to their financial supporters. And, for ordinary people watching this spectacle, it makes government decisions on industrial projects or regulations seem suspect.
There are divisions amongst the Gixtsan about the merits of LNG, but Chief Lattie, the 68-year-old mother of seven children and eight grandchildren, rightly worries about government motivations behind pipelines and fracked gas.
In addition to LNG projects, many First Nations across B.C. are incensed by the bulldozer tactics being used to get construction of the Site C dam past the “point of no return” before the provincial election in May. Elections BC is reviewing Kinder Morgan’s super sized donations to the B.C. Liberals after a formal complaint they may have influenced the decision to accept the Transmountain pipeline expansion project last year.
The Clark government is under fire on a number of fronts related to industries making big donations. Decisions by the B.C. Liberals show a pattern of favouritism towards industry that we find increasingly distressing and worthy of much more investigation.
The B.C. government is accused of lax regulation and oversight of the mining industry. Last year, the B.C. auditor general warned that the ministry of energy and mines was “at risk of regulatory capture.”
“The compliance and enforcement activities of both the Ministry of Energy and Mines and Ministry of Environment are not set up to protect the province from environmental risks,” said the auditor general.
There have been a series of recent mining disasters in B.C.. Most famously, the 2014 Imperial Metals’ tailings pond failure at its Mount Polley copper and gold mine. Millions of cubic metres of toxic tailings cascaded into nearby lakes and rivers in the worst mining spill in Canadian history. A year-long investigation concluded that the disaster was caused by “poor practices” but no fines were levied and no charges were laid. In addition to Imperial Metals own donations, it emerged that the company’s controlling shareholder, Murray Edwards, had donated half a million dollars to the B.C. Liberals prior to the disaster and organized a $1-million private fundraiser for Christy Clark’s re-election campaign at the Calgary Petroleum Club.
This week a coalition of First Nations, doctors and NGO’s called for a judicial inquiry into mining regulation. Calvin Sandborn, legal director at the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre cited, “repeated instances where it has been shown the the regulatory system has failed.”
Fossil Fuels and Climate Change
Massive oil and gas industry donations also raise questions about B.C.’s decisions regarding climate change. The B.C. government is headed in the entirely wrong direction on climate change — climate pollution in the province is going up while provinces like Ontario and Quebec are making progress.
The Christy Clark government rejected the majority of recommendations from its own Climate Leadership Team in 2016 which had presented a plan to reverse the trajectory of B.C.’s climate pollution.
The province is working hard to convince Malaysia’s Petronas to build a liquefied natural gas plant that would be the largest greenhouse gas emitter in Canada. LNG projects make strange bedfellows. Petronas is wholly owned by the Malaysian government and supplies as much as 45 per cent of its budget.
Little surprise that Rich Coleman, minister of natural gas development, was the minister most heavily involved in lobbying by the fossil fuel firms.
Time for an Inquiry
It’s long past time to clean up political cash in the Wild West and to launch a corruption inquiry into industry influence and political donation rules in B.C. along the lines of the federal Gomery Inquiry or the Charbonneau Commission in Quebec. The Quebec commission developed recommendations for restoring public trust in political decisions after looking into corruption and collusion in the construction industry.
National Observer reported earlier this week on similar concerns over the awarding of provincial contracts to paving and road maintenance companies in B.C.. Companies that make donations to the governing Liberal party “received nearly twice as many contracts from the provincial government on average than companies that did not donate.”
BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver asks a question about political donations and lobbying to B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton in question period on March 9, 2017
The unrestricted flow of industry money into party coffers is corrosive to democracy. After all, corporations are under legal obligation to spend money with an expectation of return on their investment. The public has every right to suspect government is in the pocket of the rich and powerful — a situation that can only inflame the angry forces of anti-government populism.
Media is not immune to fossil fuel cash
Free and independent journalism has traditionally been a crucial bulwark against government corruption. But Canadians have reason to worry that fossil fuel interests have also penetrated big media.
So much of the news Canadians hear about the energy industry is framed by the supposed inevitability of continued oil and gas production. One of the primary reasons for establishing National Observer was to provide energy reporting in a climate change context and journalism that’s not afraid to dig into the activities of regulators and companies behind fossil fuel projects.
If you’re a long time reader, you’ve received reporting about fossil fuel industry influence over Canada’s largest newspaper chain, Postmedia. In one instance, Postmedia actively courted the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, offering “topics to be directed by CAPP and written by Postmedia.” That was several years ago and we have no evidence of whether this relationship continues, but we certainly don’t see the regular, hard-hitting, critical reporting on the gas and oil industry we would wish to see from Canada’s largest newspaper chain.
Even the much beloved CBC is apparently not immune to influence. Friends of Canadian Broadcasting points to an enduring legacy of the Harper government — seven of the nine CBC board members are donors to the Conservative Party. Anchor Peter Mansbridge had come under criticism for receiving large speaking fees from oil and gas lobby groups — $28,000 for one single speech to CAPP.