Transparency and its Other – Studying the Oil Industry

AZalik_pictureBy Anna Zalik

In this post I would like to give a few examples of my experience grappling with non disclosure and enclosure of spaces of contestation surrounding oil industry operations. The first example, as Kimia Ghomeshi and I have documented in greater detail via Antipode Foundation, concerns our attempt to access detailed information on Canadian government financing (through Export Development Canada), to controversial pipeline projects, including the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway. That experience underlined that substantive access to the specifics of Canadian corporate activities financed via government channels is unavailable to both the research community and the general public, expressing overall regulatory capture (at multiple scales) by the interests of the hydrocarbon industry. Under an increasingly financialized economy, and the (albeit volatile) rise of minerals and hydrocarbon investment that followed 9-11 and later the 2008 financial crisis, substantive democratic checks on over-exploitation by capital are compromised in increasingly obvious forms.

The second example concerns my experience with previously confidential files pertaining to Shell’s activities during the Nigerian Civil War available at the Kew Public Records Office in London. In 2004, I published the following extended citation of archived correspondence between British High Commissions in West Africa and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London (FCO) archives in an article in the Review of African Political Economy :

“You will, I imagine, already be aware from your close relations with Shell in the context of the Nigerian war, that Shell are also fuelling the planes carrying the airlift into Biafra from Sao Tome. This presents them with a minor conflict of interest.

As far as I can make out Shell are the only company who have been supplying aviation fuel at Sao Tome. When the war began they supplied the few planes staging there with fuel. This represented a small amount. As the war continued the amounts became larger, and in a modest way represented what appeared to be a money spinner for Shell. One of their customers was the American gun-runner, Wharton, who a year or so ago was flying arms into Biafra via Portugal and Sao Tome. Shell were apparently unwise enough to give him credit and he has left them with the bad debt of 5 million escudos (say 75000 pounds)

According to the local and newly arrived Shell manager here his head office told him in London that the less they knew about the Shell operations in Sao tome the better. They are evidently willing to do business there as long as this does not attract unfavourable publicity. Should they now cease to supply aviation fuel at Sao Tome this would presumably attract unfavourable comment about Shell in the world press for having deliberately held up the relief supplies being flown in by the church organisations…

Reflecting on this, we have been wondering whether any interruption or reduction of the airlift from Sao Tome into Biafra could help to bring about the end of the war? If so, then Shell could perhaps be prevailed upon to cut off their supplies of aviation fuel to Sao Tome for a short period…”

Source: The National Archives of the UK
Source: The National Archives of the UK

The response from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to this letter reads:

“This is a slightly tricky problem as I see it, in that the question of supplying aviation fuel for flights of all kinds from Sao Tome is a matter of Shell’s Commercial operations and interests. We should therefore have to be on firm ground of national interest if we were to seek to move Shell to change their present commercial practice.

On this criterion I should have thought that we should encourage Shell to provide fuel for the relief flights, but that (if this could be done separately) they should be dissuaded from assisting the arms flights. Inter alia, I should have thought that the Company’s standing in Nigeria generally would suffer substantially were the Nigerians to become aware of the assistance given to arms flights by Shell in Sao Tome.

In these circumstances I should have thought that we could reasonably have sounded Shell about their prospects of discriminating between their clients. Could they, for example, on the basis of their bad debt on the Wharton account, decline to supply arms flights further? Could a ‘Head Office decision’ be used to justify a change locally? Clearly, if it were not possible for Shell to discriminate between customers, we should not be in a good position to urge that they cut off all supplies, since this would affect relief flights…”

On a subsequent visit to Kew, I found the box containing this correspondence had been de-indexed and thus inaccessible to the public unless they had the box number already (which is File FCO 67 212). The file was also much disorganized, which my colleague Dr. Ike Okonta in Nigeria indicated had been his experience with other materials pertaining to the Nigerian civil war. I was advised, informally, that this was not accidental and that I should make a copy of every page in that box, a further example of which may be viewed here.

The third example is drawn from my observations at the environmental impact hearings held under the auspices of the 2012 Joint Review Panel concerning the Shell Jackpine Mine Expansion in the Alberta Tar Sands. This project was ultimately approved, but has been firmly opposed by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN). The hearings process, in its tribunal form, is highly exclusionary – successful intervention in that process is severely limited by the expectation that opposing interveners would be represented by legal counsel. Among other observations made by Asume Osuoka and myself with regard to the materials under review, an anecdote from the hearings in Northern Alberta in the winter illustrates the overall power dynamics between the firm and opposing First Nations and Metis. Following an electrical blackout at the hearing venue, elders from ACFN waited outside at the venue for an hour, while Shell staff were allowed entry by security. But most telling was that the week immediately prior to the start of the hearings – in October 2012, Shell bought the naming rights for the facility via a 2.5 million dollar partnership. The extension of MacDonald Island Park, the sports facility at which the hearings took place, was to be named Shell Place, shifting the terrain in favour of corporate marketing. The general public, including First Nations and Metis with historic rights to the affected land, thus attended regulatory processes nominally aimed at protecting their interests, in a building held by the corporation whose project was under consideration. Upon approaching the hearings a billboard reading ‘Future Home of Shell Place’ was visible on the entry road to the facility. These kinds of dynamics have clear material consequences for decision-making under formally liberal-democratic processes. For excellent analysis concerning how transparency discourse is applied inequitably and problematically to Canadian First Nations, see Shiri Pasternak’s crucial work.

A final example concerns the erosion of labour protections in the oil industry in Mexico, as foreign industry participation in the offshore oil sector deepens. This creeping denationalization has been ongoing for some decades, and accelerated under recent oil and energy sector reforms under the Felipe Calderon and now Pena Nieto administrations. In conducting interviews regarding these issues on various occasions over the past decade, I have met workers engaged on offshore platforms who described nasty conditions, but were constrained from reporting this through non-disclosure clauses in their contracts. Workers who had been involved in an organizing drive on privately managed platforms had been black-listed, and had received threats. These dynamics have been described at length by labour rights organizations such as CEREAL and the Union of Technical/Professional Workers in Oil Industry (UNTyPP) in Mexico, and in a report published by the International Transport Workers authored by the award-winning Mexican journalist Ana Lilia Perez.

These experiences are just a few of the many that those who have studied the oil and gas industry, and corporate activity in general, could report concerning research on particular private sector activities. While a great deal of general reporting is available on industry activity, the detailed reporting sold to investors, on the other hand, runs in the various 1000s of dollars and is certainly not available in university libraries. All of this points to the contradictory nature of transparency discourse through such projects as that of the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, on which Sarah Bracking has written. Bracking offers the following central insight regarding the EITI: It targets so-called ‘host countries’ for oil and gas activity, largely in the Global South, while the ‘home countries’ – and thus socio-environmental and financial regulation driving the operation of transnational oil firms – remains insulated via corporate privacy protections in the Global North. Despite sincere efforts by civil society coalitions to promote implementation of these processes in the home country, and the passing of such regulations as the Dodd-Frank Act, the gaps in these measure remain enormous.

In closing I turn to Dr. Mia de Kuijper- former oil industry executive – who argues in a recent book on business strategy for the new millennium entitled Profit, Power and Economics, that we are moving into a period of perfect transparency. On page 42 of that book, published by Oxford University Press in 2009, she provides this caveat:

“My use of the word transparency is meant to emphasize the fact that information will travel instantly and without obstruction, equally clear and perceptible to everyone. I am not describing the sort of transparency that is demanded when critics insist that windows into business or government operations be held open in order to enforce accountability” (de Kuijper, 42).


Anna Zalik is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. She thanks Sonja Killoran-McKibbin for very helpful comments on this piece.


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