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Oil, Gas and Banks Head South

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April 24, 2012

Oil, Gas and Banks Head South

Mining companies are only part of Canada's corporate presence in Latin America

by Dawn Paley

Collage based on stickers seen in Bogota. Photo: Moira Peters

LOS CABOS, MEXICO—The hard fought battle against the Keystone XL pipeline, which was slated to carry tar sands crude across Canada and the United States to port in Texas, kicked struggles against Canadian-owned oil and gas companies up to a new level. Resistance dominated headlines in Canada, while rural folk, Indigenous people, celebrities, and climate activists in the US took direct action to block Calgary-based TransCanada’s plans. In northern BC, Indigenous-led resistance to the proposed Enbridge pipeline, along with a host of other US-owned infrastructure projects, have become front and centre issues 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 behavior 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 gained prominence on a global scale. Take the case of 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.

A study by Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP found that in 2010, Canadian oil and gas companies made over $35 billion in mergers and acquisitions in Central and Latin America, and the region is the second most attractive place (after the United States) for Canadian oil companies to invest outside of Canada. Colombia in particular 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 approved a free trade agreement...so that opens the way for a lot of opportunities and our government is very happy about that,” said then-Colombian Energy and Mining Minister Hernan Martinez to 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.

A preliminary list of Canadian oil companies active in Latin America

Gran Tierra Energy Incorporated: Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Peru
Parex Resources Incorporated: Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago
Canacol Energy Limited: Colombia, Guyana, Brazil
Talisman Energy Incorporated: Colombia, Peru
Nexen Incorporated: Colombia
Petrominerales: Colombia, Peru
Quattro Exploration and Production: Guatemala
Quetzal Energy Limited: Colombia

Petro Vista Energy Corporation: Colombia, Brazil
TrueStar Petroleum Corporation: Guatemala

Pacific Rubiales Energy: Colombia, Peru, Guatemala

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.

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 people are killed,” said Taban Deng, a former government official, in 2002, from what is today Southern Sudan.

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 2,000 kilometres of pipelines.

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 its property, has been subject to ongoing strikes by the United Workers Union (USO). Numerous incursions by riot police to break up strikes have resulted in serious injuries among workers. Pacific Rubiales is working hard on public relations, having recently sponsored a prestigious golf tournament in Colombia, inaugurated with a celebrity swing by Bill Clinton.

Along with Nexen, another Calgary-based company, Pacific Rubiales has announced that it has discovered natural gas reserves within its Colombian concessions. A number of other Canadian companies have recently displayed renewed interest in the vast jungle regions of northern Guatemala, which is populated by communities 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 linked to the activity of 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 [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 war and repression that so often accompany these projects, is work that must continue if we are to have any chance of collective survival on this planet.

Dawn Paley is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the Vancouver Media Co-op. A version of this article was published in the March/April print edition of Watershed Sentinel.

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...all in the aftermath of tar sands leading funder RBC buying up the RBTT in Trinidad and Tobago.

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