Oil, Gas & Banks Head South

A host of oil and gas companies based in Calgary and Toronto have been increasing their holdings throughout Latin America, taking advantage of the same lax legal standards Canadian mining companies enjoy.

by Dawn Paley 

The hard fought battle against the Keystone XL pipeline, slated to carry tar sands crude across the United States to a port in Texas, kicked struggles against Canadian-owned oil and gas companies up to a new level.

Resistance dominated headlines in Canada and in the USA, while rural folk, indigenous people, celebrities, and climate activists took direct action to block Calgary-based TransCanada’s plans in cities and villages throughout the United States. 

In northern BC, the proposed Enbridge pipeline and a host of other infrastructure projects, have become front and centre issues, with indigenous- led resistance, for environmentalists and activists across Canada. 

The role of Canadian oil, gas and pipeline companies in other parts of the world is, however, less discussed. Many activists have focused on the behaviour of the Canadian mining sector, a natural choice given the size of that sector compared to the oil and gas industries in Canada. “In Canada, a major difference between the oil and gas and mining sectors is that while many of Canada’s largest companies are oil and gas producers, some with integrated operations, they are not particularly prominent in the global arena just now,” reads a 2008 report by the Economic Commission on Latin America. 

It’s been four years since that report was released, and it might be time to revisit the idea that the Canadian oil and gas sector hasn’t yet gained prominence on a global scale. At least that seems to be the case in Latin America, where a host of oil and gas companies based in Calgary and Toronto have been increasing their holdings throughout the hemisphere, taking advantage of the same lax legal standards Canadian mining companies enjoy. 

Free Trade with Colombia 

A study by Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP found that Canadian oil and gas companies made over $35 billion worth of mergers and acquisitions in Central and Latin America in 2010, and the region is the second most attractive place (after the United States) for Canadian oil companies considering investing outside of Canada. Colombia has quickly become a favourite destination for this new surge of Canadian oil and gas investment. 

At the same time as the Canadian Senate approved a Free Trade Agreement between Canada and Colombia in June of 2010, a government-hosted bidding fair on oil and gas properties was taking place in Cartagena, Colombia. “I have some good news for our Canadian friends. The Senate has just a p – proved a free trade agreement . . . so that opens the way for a lot of opportunities and our government is very happy about that,” former Energy and Mining Minister Hernán Martínez told corporate representatives bidding on oil and gas concessions in Cartagena that day. 

Canadian oil companies were among the chief supporters of the agreement, which was roundly criticized because of the continued killings, kidnapping and displacement of indigenous people, trade unionists, peasants, dissenters, and the poor in Colombia. A Free Trade Agreement with Peru was approved by the Canadian Senate a little later, on the heels of a massacre in the Amazon province of Bagua where an estimated 100 people were killed during protests in defense of their lands. 

Pacific Rubiales and Talisman, two of the most important Canadian oil companies in Colombia, have already come under intense criticism linked to the high environmental and social cost of their operations. 

Talisman in Sudan and Peru 

A class action lawsuit brought against Talisman in 2002, which was later dismissed, alleged that the company was involved in funding war in southern Sudan. “Talisman Energy finances and directs the Government of Sudan’s ethnic cleansing campaign and must be stopped before all of our villages are destroyed and all of the former government official from what is today Southern Sudan, in 2002. 

In some ways, it seems that little has changed in the 10 years since Talisman was active in Sudan. In December of last year, Amazon Watch released testimony from a priest who traveled into northern Peruvian indigenous communities near Talisman’s operations. “The presence of Talisman is generating conflict between those who accept and those who don’t accept the company, and a conflict like this here in the jungle runs the risk costing many lives,” said Father Diego Clavijo. “What they are doing here [in the Pastaza River basin] with some ex-leaders is also dividing people, and it is going to cause death and destruction,” he said. “We are on the verge of genocide, genocide between peoples, due to infighting over the presence of the company here.” 

Talisman made inroads in conflict- ridden Colombia in 2010, when they bought 49 per cent of BP’s oil and gas projects in Colombia, including more than 2000 km of pipelines. 

Golf Amid the Strikes 

Pacific Rubiales, for its part, operates the largest oil project in Colombia. The company, which at one point had a military base with 600 soldiers stationed on their property, has been subject to ongoing strikes by the United Workers Union. Numerous incursions by riot police to break up strikes have resulted in serious injuries among workers.

Pacific Rubiales is working hard on the PR end of things, having recently sponsored a prestigious golf tournament in Colombia, inaugurated with a celebrity swing by Bill Clinton. Pacific Rubiales has announced the discovery of natural gas reserves within their Colombian concessions. Nexen, another Calgary-based company active in Colombia, recently made a similar announcement. 

A number of other Canadian companies have recently displayed renewed interest in the vast jungle regions of northern Guatemala, populated by communities which are primarily of Mayan descent. Increasing conflict in the region, exemplified by a horrific massacre of 27 peasants in San Benito, Peten, last year, has not been linked directly with oil and gas interests, instead being blamed on drug cartels. 

Tracing the fault lines of Canadian oil and gas companies in Latin America and the Caribbean also requires looking at Canada’s role in the banking sector throughout the region. RBC and Scotiabank are both major players, with banks and ATMs popping up throughout countries with heavy mining and oil and gas investment. 

“Today, RBC has bought off every single aspect of the RBTT, [ the former Royal Bank of Trinidad and Tobago], and now financially dominates the landscape,” said Macdonald Stainsby, an activist and writer who returned from the island nation earlier this year. “[RBC has] openly called for financing of new oil plays, in particular they’ve brought up tar sands,” he said. Stainsby, who runs the website oilsandstruth.org, increasingly devotes time to making links with communities organizing against tar sands in countries like Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela. 

Building these links of solidarity and continuing to raise awareness about the impacts of oil and gas projects on local communities, while at the same time organizing against the war and repression that so often accompanies these projects, is work that must continue to get done if we are to have any chance of collective survival on this planet. 


Dawn Paley is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver.

[From WS March/April 2012]

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