Breaking through Big Oil’s “regime of obstruction”

An interview with William Carroll about Canada’s fossil fuel power elite—its networks, public and private support, and climate denialism—as exposed and examined in his important new anthology for the Corporate Mapping Project.
October 15, 2020

Photo of William Carroll

William K. Carroll is a critical sociologist at the University of Victoria with research interests in the political economy/ecology of corporate capitalism, social movements and social change, and critical social theory and method. His current research is focused around the relationships between corporate power, fossil capitalism and the climate crisis. Carroll co-directs the SSHRC-funded Corporate Mapping Project with CCPA-BC Director Shannon Daub in partnership with the CCPA, Parkland Institute and several universities. His edited anthology, Regime of Obstruction (AU Press, November 2020), is a culmination of research from the first three years of the Corporate Mapping Project and represents a midway point in its work. The Monitor reached Carroll by Skype at his Vancouver Island home this July.


The Monitor: In your introduction to Regime of Obstruction, you write: “Corporate control of the production of energy (most of which takes the form of fossil fuels), and the reach of corporate power into other social fields, pose the greatest obstacles to addressing the ecological and economic challenges humanity faces today.” Explain why you think that is the case.

William K. Carroll: Clearly the global ecological crisis is broader than just the climate crisis, but I think that that crisis is particularly urgent. And it’s particularly difficult to address because of the way capitalism has developed as a way of life that is really fuelled by fossil fuels. Even after relatively half-hearted attempts to move away from fossil fuels in the past few years, still more than 80% of all the energy in the global economy is generated from carbon. 

It’s one of these wicked problems. It’s intractable because there are so many different aspects of corporate power, as we try to develop in the book, that are reinforcing this way of life and obstructing the kinds of relatively rapid changes that we need to be making in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The effects are already being felt and they’re going to get worse. Even if we were to radically reduce carbon emissions tomorrow, the inertia in the climate system is such that it’s going to be a rough ride for humanity in the next number of years. 

But to avoid a really bad situation, we would need to shift away from a way of life that really inscribes corporate power at its centre and provides various kinds of attractions. There are appealing aspects to this way of life for many people—if you happen to have money (laughs). In my view it’s a rather alienating way of life, as our social relations are so commercialized and mediated by markets, and the profit motive is so corrosive to healthy social relations. But I think individuals who are financially secure experience this as a very pleasant way of life. 

That in itself is a very difficult problem. It’s a kind of first world problem, but it’s really a global problem. And it gets into the question of hegemony that we explore in this book. How is it that people end up supporting an ecologically, and in terms of social justice issues, deeply problematic way of life? What is it that pulls us into this and makes us consent and even often stand as boosters of this way of life? 

In their chapter, Ian Hussey, Eric Pineault, Emma Jackson and Susan Cake talk about the oil patch’s ability to continue to prosper even during a bust cycle, by squeezing labour and finding technological efficiencies to keep the flow of oil steady. But, they write, the survival of these firms “rests on their ability to capture and control [energy and environmental] policies at both the provincial and federal levels and this requires sustained deployment of organizational power.” How has fossil capital organized its power during the Trudeau years?  

Shannon’s chapter on the “new denialism” is quite useful in this respect. She and her co-authors track the new denialism that is different from the kind of fairly hardcore denialism that we found under Stephen Harper’s regime, and also that I think we see with Jason Kenney as well. The more hard-right denialism, if you like, is exemplified by the classic ExxonMobil denial of there being a climate crisis at all. Now very few people are in that category at this point. So really the trend has been toward new denialism and I think the Trudeau government is a good example of that. 

The new denialism doesn’t deny the science; it accepts that there is a climate crisis, but it offers up solutions that are obviously inadequate and that basically provide cover to industry. So that rather than making the fairly dramatic changes that need to be made, the argument is we can do this at a very, very slow, incremental pace that doesn’t in any way endanger the profits and the investments that Ian Hussey and his co-authors write about in the chapter you mentioned. And so it’s an attempt to solve the problem within the logic of capitalism, that is to say, through the use of market mechanisms and by trying to steer market decisions through putting a price on carbon, through technological innovations that make carbon extraction less intensive in terms of its emissions, and so on, but without changing anything about the social relations and the logic of endless growth on a finite planet.  

That is, I think, at the heart of the issue—whether this problem, which in our view is endemic to the actual social logic of fossil capitalism, whether it can actually be solved within the social logic of fossil capitalism. Our argument would be that it really can’t. But of course, industry is entrenched, their interests are in maintaining those structures and they do that in various ways. And part of it is constructing these new-denialist narratives.

Beyond crafting the narrative, are there specific measures or policies fossil fuel companies are seeking during the present crisis (in Alberta, for example), any shift in what they’re looking for and how they are organizing to get it?

When the present oil crisis initially hit in March, we had some discussions in the Corporate Mapping Project about what would be the likely industry ask, and whether there might be a major bailout of the industry. Eventually, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers settled on an ask of between $27 billion and $30 billion in bailout money. That didn’t exactly happen. What the federal government actually did was somewhat more targeted. (Editor’s note: In April, the government announced $2.45 billion in aid for workers, $1.7 billion to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells, $750 million on emissions reducing activities, and the availability of “higher risk financing” in the form of Export Development Canada commercial loans.) But I think there’s interesting maneuvering going on to package industry bailouts in ways that are optically not problematic, because so much public opinion is concerned now about the climate crisis. 

The popular sector has been arguing for a just recovery from the pandemic-induced recession. And that’s interesting language, I think, to combine recovery with the just transition from fossil capitalism to something different. A just recovery from the COVID-19 crisis would involve seriously looking at our various institutions and thinking about how we can make them more socially just as we move out of this crisis, which has revealed profound injustices, from housing, health care and elder care to wages and working conditions for many workers. 

Obviously, the initial phase of the crisis on the fossil fuel sector brought a massive collapse to the price of oil and gas, but that was related to other conjunctural factors in terms of OPEC, and Russia and Saudi Arabia in particular. So, there was concern that the industry was just going to collapse completely. The bailouts, as I say, have been somewhat targeted, but I do think there is maneuvering to try to get funds to the companies to keep them going. In the initial support program last spring, funds for the energy sector were modest, but they went exclusively to the oil and gas industry, not renewable energy.

Of course, we are already paying the fossil fuel industry enormous amounts of public money in the form of subsidies. There was an International Monetary Fund study last year that found post-tax subsidies to be in the US$43 billion range in 2015-16. That was almost 20% of the federal budget before all this pandemic spending started. I mean, other countries massively subsidize their energy sectors as well. Canada is not really an exception. But it is quite remarkable the extent to which the profitability of this industry is almost entirely dependent on state subsidy.

Your chapter with Jouke Huijzer looks at strategic control of fossil fuel companies—strategic power based on share ownership—which is concentrated among wealthy families and other corporations. But you point out that by looking at share ownership alone, you cannot see whether or how fossil power works in a coherent way. Could you say a bit about what you call “constellations of power” and how they affect company behaviour?

If we think about how firms are controlled, the most straightforward approach is where one capitalist owns a company outright and controls it completely. Most companies in Canada are actually owned and controlled by single capitalist individuals or families. But in large corporations, shares are typically owned by various shareholders and often there’s a principal shareholder. If that principal shareholder owns a majority of shares, then that investor has complete control of the corporation and can mobilize the capital that is actually owned by the minority shareholders as part of the capital that the principal shareholder controls. 

But many corporations nowadays don’t have a principal shareholder or might have one who only owns 10% of the shares. They’re giant corporations, so 10% of the shares might amount to a fortune of $5 billion. So, it’s understandable you don’t find a lot of giant companies that are majority owned by a principal shareholder. And so, for many of the biggest companies nowadays there isn’t any one identifiable shareholder that one could say is in a position of actual strategic control over the corporation. But that doesn’t mean the major investors that own, say, 5% here, 5% there, don’t actually exert power and influence in terms of corporate strategy. 

That gets us to that somewhat murky situation of control by a constellation of interests. This is a situation where, in terms of the way we operationalize it, there isn’t any principal shareholder, but there a number of (typically institutional) investors—asset managers, banks, other financial institutions—that own significant slices of, say, 5% or even 2%. The various slices add up to a situation of effective control, but it’s a constellation that doesn’t necessarily function as a controlling unit. 


In that sense, it’s an ambiguous situation. But I don’t think it would be accurate to say these investors have no influence. Take an asset manager like BlackRock, which has investments in virtually every large corporation in the world. It’s churning its investments, it’s figuring out—with the assistance of computerized algorithms—how to optimize at any given moment, so it’s moving a certain amount of capital around within its portfolio. BlackRock doesn’t appoint directors—it would be practically impossible because it’s basically invested in everything. The kind of influence you get with this kind of situation, of a constellation of interests, is more the power of exit, of potentially leaving—of divesting, if the firm fails to earn sufficient profit. 

The business press has pointed out in recent years that sometimes institutional investors come to hold sufficient shares in a company that they consider themselves to be locked into the investment. And in those situations, while they may not appoint a director to the board, they can make a phone call to the CEO. So, the influence can take other forms. 

It’s a complex situation, but certainly constellations of interests are important to keep in mind in looking at the fossil fuel sector in Canada and the role of, for example, Canada’s five big banks. They’re heavily invested. They also lend enormous amounts of money to these corporations and they own significant blocks of shares in the major fossil fuel corporations.

Does the involvement of institutional investors in the sector, including mutual funds, private pensions and even the Canada Pension Plan, affect public support for fossil capital?

As early as the late 19th century, critics of the economic system pointed to the rise of a labour aristocracy—relatively well-paid artisanal skilled workers who had strong positions within the economy. Their relative affluence tended to have a politically conservatizing tendency, giving them a stake in the system. Something similar began to happen in the late 20th century, with the rise of what’s sometimes called an “investor aristocracy.” Many people in countries like Canada now have pensions that are invested in the fossil fuel sector as well as other sectors. That is to say, a relatively affluent segment of the working class has pensions that appear to be more than just deferred wages, but investments. 

As people see their retirement income tied up in the fossil fuel sector and other sectors, they might very well develop a sense of allegiance, a sense of solidarity with the sector, a sense of converging interests. And that can be a real ideological barrier, a kind of golden straitjacket. But in our current situation, this can be a double-edged sword with the strength of the divestment movement and the declining profitability of the fossil fuel sector, and the whole question of what demand for fossil fuels is going to look like as we go forward. The rational choice today would be to divest rather than to support this industry, and workers with pensions invested in the sector may expect this of these funds.

Fossil power has been entrenched in Canada for a long time. In doing this research into its current shape and practices, and recent protests against it, does anything surprise you? 

For me, what would stand out in that regard, and we address it in a couple of chapters in the middle part of the book about the struggle for hearts and minds, is the play of corporate power vis à vis Indigenous communities and Indigenous nations. For me that was quite striking to look into, especially the work that Cliff Atleo (a Corporate Mapping Project core team member at SFU) has done in his chapter. 

Cliff traces how, after centuries of colonization, Indigenous communities are, as he puts it in the title of his chapter, between a rock and a hard place. This is a situation that stems from their having been dispossessed, colonized and dominated by the Canadian state for such a long time. And now the industry, particularly pipeline and other infrastructure projects, needs access to, or through, Indigenous land. The whole question of how that works is an important one. 

What I found particularly eye-opening was the developing strategic perspective of the industry toward a soft denial approach: they are interested in partnership, in effect co-opting Indigenous communities into the project of fossil capital. These communities are in many cases suffering very deep impoverishment and here’s an opportunity to actually get in on a gravy train and get some share of the revenue from carbon extraction. These revenue sharing agreements are a carrot that’s being held out to Indigenous communities and understandably a number of them have signed up. That divide and rule approach, I think, is really front and centre both for industry and the Canadian government in trying to get things built and keep a lid on dissent. These agreements actually commit the Indigenous communities to not dissenting and not blocking any pipelines. 

From an investment perspective, of course the concern is always with “certainty.” Investors want certainty, they don’t want disruption. They want to be able to have a smooth flow of profit into their coffers. In a number of Indigenous communities, globally and not just within Canada, there is a political and cultural movement of Indigenous resurgence, really pushing harder and robustly for decolonization. But at the same time there is this kind of initiative from the fossil fuel sector in Canada to try to co-opt and establish “partnerships.” Right now, that’s a really important piece of the struggle for hearts and minds.

With fossil capital exerting influence at the community, provincial, national and international level, is there one best place for the counter-movements to push their vision for climate justice and a just transition? 

The regime of obstruction operates at various scales (see chart—Ed.). From everyday life to the global. We need to be active at all these scales, but I don’t know whether one has priority over the other. From everyday life, in terms of conversations and online presence and local initiatives, obviously issues of free public transit, for example, are important. There’s a lot of initiatives, going from that everyday life level to the level of global climate conferences. 

The Canadian federal government and the B.C. government talk about a just transition. On the one hand B.C. has unfortunately gone all in with liquefied natural gas (LNG), but the current provincial government does have some good initiatives as well, and I think it’s a government that responds to pressure to some extent. So pressuring governments is important. Changing attitudes and divestment politics are important.  

As Seth Klein argues in his new book, which is more state-centred than ours, “we need an all-out effort.” (Editor’s note: Seth’s book, A Good War: Mobilizing for the Climate Emergency, was excerpted in the September/October issue of the Monitor.) We need to think about the fronts that need to be opened up, from everyday life right up to local and national politics to the global. That seems overwhelming, but there are movements already active at these levels. I take some optimism from that.


Regime of Destruction book coverRegime of Obstruction: How Corporate Power Blocks Energy Democracy will be released by AU Press in November. The anthology includes contributions from Laurie Adkin, Angele Alook, Clifford Atleo, Emilia Belliveau-Thompson, John Bermingham, Paul Bowles, Gwendolyn Blue, Shannon Daub, Jessica Dempsey, Emily Eaton, Chuka Ejeckam, Simon Enoch, Nick Graham, Shane Gunster, Mark Hudson, Jouke Huijzer, Ian Hussey, Emma Jackson, Michael Lang, James Lawson, Marc Lee, Fiona MacPhail, Alicia Massie, Kevin McCartney, Bob Neubauer, Eric Pineault, Lise Margaux Rajewicz, James Rowe, JP Sapinski, Karena Shaw and Zoe Yunker.