A closer look at the fossil fuel industry

Social Sciences

- Anne MacLaurin

Who is steering fossil fuel extraction in Western Canada and what influence do they wield?  

These central questions are driving a six-year research and public engagement initiative, Mapping the Power of the Carbon-Extractive Corporate Resource Sector, with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), as announced on Nov. 15, 2015. The project brings together researchers, civil society organizations and Indigenous participants to study the oil, gas and coal industries in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. 

“We’ve seen a rapid acceleration of fossil fuel extraction in recent years,” says Dr. Bill Carroll, UVic professor of sociology and co-director of the partnership. “Yet our knowledge of the companies involved and how they influence decision-making about our publicly owned carbon resources is remarkably sparse.” 

“Over the coming year, we’ll be taking a close look at who the key players are in these industries—the companies themselves, but also the many industry associations that work to influence the decisions Canadians and our governments make about oil, gas and coal resources,” says Shannon Daub, who co-directs the partnership on behalf of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC.

“There are dozens of industry groups to look at, some better known to the public, like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and others that most people have never heard of, that form a powerful lobby for fossil fuel interests," says Daub.

Hosted by the University of Victoria, the partnership is jointly led by the university, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (BC and Saskatchewan offices) and the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta. In addition to the $2.5-million SSHRC award, the project is also supported by $2 million in matching contributions.

The partnership’s work will focus in four key areas: 

  • A systematic mapping of how the carbon-extractive industry is organized—which companies are involved, who runs them, who owns them and how they connect to broader international corporate networks.
  • Analysis of the sector’s influence on public debates and policy making—such as efforts to secure social license, and corporate links to governments, political parties, lobby groups and private foundations.
  • Case studies of contentious “flashpoints”—such as the expansion or development of new mines, pipelines, oil fields or export facilities.
  • Development of an open source, publicly accessible corporate database—along with a training program for citizens and civil society groups, many of whom will contribute and update data.

"Canadians know how much economic power the fossil-fuel energy sector wields, but we don't know have that much knowledge of the actual way power is organized within that sector, and how the sector wields influence over other aspects of Canadian society, such as lobbying, media, education," says Carroll.

“We are at a climate crossroads,” says Trevor Harrison, director of the Parkland Institute. “The decisions we make today about what to do with our remaining oil and gas resources will have consequences for generations to come.” Adds Simon Enoch, director of the CCPA’s Saskatchewan office, “It is vital that we make these decisions democratically—and that requires transparency and a level playing field.”

SSHRC Partnership Grants support formal partnerships between universities and other partners to improve understanding of critical issues of intellectual, social, economic and cultural significance.


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Keywords: clean energy, research, sustainability, sociology, mining

People: Bill Carroll

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