Oilsands critics put spotlight on foreign ownership

Anti-oilsands activists hit back at recent criticism of foreign funding of environmental charities Thursday by releasing a report showing oilsands companies are overwhelmingly foreign-owned.

ForestEthics Advocacy — a spin-off of ForestEthics, which is a registered charity — released a shareholder analysis conducted using Bloomberg statistics that found 71 per cent of all companies operating in the Fort McMurray, Alta., area are not Canadian.

Of the remaining companies that are headquartered in Canada, many are largely foreign-owned, the group says. For instance, while Husky Energy is a Calgary-based company, 91 per cent of it is owned by foreigners, most notably Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing.

On top of that, ForestEthics Advocacy (FEA) cited Statistics Canada numbers that showed 118,000 people were employed by oilsands production, accounting for less than one per cent of Canada's working population.

The group also tackled the issue of foreign funds going to Canadian charities.

"The percentage of foreign support, support from other countries, for Canadian environmental charities is very low compared to the philanthropic donations from Canadians," FEA's Tzeporah Berman said on a conference call Thursday.

Berman also defended the use of outside financial help, noting that if it weren't for cross-border support "we wouldn't have stopped acid rain."

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers took issue with the way FEA presented its numbers.

"What is important is control and benefits back to Canadians," CAPP spokesperson Travis Davies wrote to CBC News.

He noted that 60 per cent of oilsands companies are Canadian controlled, meaning their boards and employees are largely Canadian and most decisions are made in Canada. Davies added that the companies pay billions of dollars in taxes and royalties to provincial and federal governments.

And while Davies did not dispute FEA's figure on the number of oilsands industry jobs, he said it was unfair to view that "in a vacuum."

The number employed in oilsands production "ignores the over half-a-million Canadians that depend on the oil and gas industry for their employment," argued Davies.

The FEA report comes after weeks of attacks on environmental charities by the Conservative government.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has accused unnamed groups of laundering foreign funds. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has called them "foreign-funded radicals." And Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton referred to green charities as "master manipulators who are operating under the guise of charitable organizations in an effort to manipulate our policies for their own gain."

The war of words began in January, the day before the Joint Review Panel was to start hearings into Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipeline.

The government argument rests on the belief that environmentalists are working against the national interest and threatening Canadian jobs by opposing development of the oilsands. The Conservatives defend foreign oil companies by saying they are investing billions in Canadian infrastructure.

The government has accused environmental charities of abusing their tax-exempt status by engaging in more political advocacy than they are allowed to under the law. Tax laws are now being changed to give the Canada Revenue Agency more powers to investigate charities.

Environmental charities have reacted relatively quickly. ForestEthics spun off an advocacy arm last month so the parent organization would no longer engage in political activity. ForestEthics Advocacy is not a charity.