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While Albertans panicked about state of oil industry, Big Five bitumen corporations made billions

Aerial view of Alberta tar sands. Photo: Dru Oja Jay/Howl Arts Collective/Wikimedia Commons

While Albertans have been in a flap over the state of the province's oilsands industry, the Big Five oilsands extraction corporations have been raking in billions.

"Despite the 2014 oil price crash and the ongoing hand-wringing over pipelines and the price differential, the reality is the Big Five oilsands producers have remained incredibly profitable corporations," says one of the authors of a new study released this morning by the Parkland Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives British Columbia office.

Last year alone, the five biggest oilsands corporations together either banked or paid out to shareholders $13.5 billion, said Ian Hussey, lead author of Boom, Bust, and Consolidation: Corporate Restructuring in the Alberta Oil Sands and Research Manager of the Parkland Institute.

The Big Five are Suncor Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Cenovus Energy Inc., Imperial Oil Ltd., and Husky Energy Inc.

The report -- undertaken as part of the six-year Corporate Mapping Project by Parkland, CCPA-BC and the University of Victoria -- analyzed the economics of the five largest oilsands corporations that together produced 80 per cent of Canada's bitumen during the period from 2009 to 2017 as the industry went through cycles of boom, bust and consolidation.

The analysis shows that while the bust was hard on some sectors of the industry and in particular on workers -- more than 20,000 lost their jobs in 2015 -- things were just fine for the Big Five and their shareholders, thank you very much.

The Big Five:

  • Together paid $31.76 billion in dividends to shareholders over the period examined by the study
  • Paid $12.56 billion to shareholders since the oil price crash in late 2014 alone
  • Transferred $6.2 billion to shareholders -- $4.16 billion in dividends and $2.4 billion buying back shares -- in 2017
  • Had residual savings of $7.3 billion in 2017, while paying $4.72 billion in taxes and royalties to all levels of government
  • Posted aggregate gross profits of $46.6 billion in 2017

Last year's aggregate profit for five companies was within spitting distance of total revenues collected from all sources by the Government of Alberta in the same period, which added up to $47.3 billion, Hussey noted.

Each of the Big Five corporations is a highly integrated multinational corporation with significant assets in the United States, Hussey explained, so they are able "to shift their operations in response to market conditions to ensure they remain profitable despite the issues that have been dominating headlines in recent months."

As a result, says the report, the Big Five oilsands producers are "increasing production while squeezing costs and slowing down investment." That in turn means "a significant chunk of Alberta's (and Canada's) carbon budget is currently reserved for a slow-growing, cost-cutting sector with weak fiscal, investment, employment and innovation benefits."

Meanwhile -- thanks to the carefully nurtured panic about the oil price differential in particular and the state of the Alberta oilpatch generally -- the Big Five and other companies in the sector have been able to steer provincial and federal energy and climate policies their way and generate huge public investment in their business.

As the report observes: "Canada will not be able to live up to its Paris Agreement obligations for the year 2050." What's more, the planet's human occupants may not have even that long to reduce fossil fuel use enough to avoid catastrophic results.

"Despite this reality," the report warns, "the Big Five all forecast an increase in total emissions in the future due to their plans to increase bitumen production."

That's probably in line with the policy wishes of most Albertans -- even if it's not in sync with those of the majority of people with whom we share the planet.

But as Hussey put it, "Albertans have to ask if it's worth it to continue to bet on the cost-cutting sector with weak fiscal and employment benefits that has emerged from the crash, or if now is the time to put in place the policies to position the province to benefit from the ongoing global energy transition."

The other authors of the study are Eric Pineault of the Université du Québec à Montréal, Emma Jackson, an MA candidate in the University of Alberta Sociology Department, and Susan Cake, who is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the U of A.

The Corporate Mapping Project is funded in part with a $2.5-million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, which was awarded in 2015 during the final months of Stephen Harper's Conservative government. I mention that final factoid only in case someone imagines the study's revelations are part of some sort of Liberal or environmentalist plot.

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 with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: Dru Oja Jay/Howl Arts Collective/Wikimedia Commons

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