Eleven of Canada’s largest oil and gas companies have dozens of subsidiaries and related companies in known tax haven jurisdictions, according to a new report from the Ottawa-based non-profit Canadians for Tax Fairness.
Those companies include Suncor, Enbridge, CNRL, TransCanada, Imperial Oil, Cenovus and Husky.
The report, titled “Bay Street and Tax Havens: Curbing Corporate Canada’s Addiction,” examined the largest 60 companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and found that just four didn’t have a publicly listed subsidiary in a known low-tax or no-tax haven.
“If you can afford the lawyers and accountants and it’s legal to do, you’ll do it,” report author Diana Gibson, told DeSmog Canada.
“Maximizing shareholder returns is the job of the CEOs and if it’s legal to avoid taxes then they will.”
Knowing how pervasive the issue is among oil and gas companies in Canada is important in order to pressure lawmakers to act, Gibson added.
“We’re not talking about slapping the hands of a couple of folks — we’re talking about a problem that needs to be fixed in the legislation.”
The new report shows companies like Enbridge and TransCanada are in line with global oil and gas industry practices. In 2015, a federal parliamentary inquiry in Australia found ExxonMobil and Chevron hold a combined $87 billion USD in tax havens.
Canadian Oil and Gas Companies Own a Combined 46 Entities in Tax Haven Countries
The report arrives on the heels of the explosive Paradise Papers, which contained 13.4 million confidential documents implicating many renowned figures — including the Queen, Bono and three former Canadian prime ministers — in the legal but ethically dubious practice of storing money in offshore tax havens.
The revelations also come as many oil and gas companies claim government policies such as methane regulations, carbon pricing or higher royalty rates create undue financial burdens and could cripple their business case.
“We constantly hear these stories about these large corporations — particularly oil and gas corporations in Alberta — operating on the margins: that they can barely make ends meet; that any shift will ultimately affect their bottom line and cost jobs and all of those things,” Ricardo Acuña, executive director of the Parkland Institute, told DeSmog Canada.
Those common talking points paint of picture of an industry without profits to hide, Acuña said.
The new report contradicts that, he said.
In total, the report calculated that oil and gas companies own a combined 21 listed subsidiaries and 25 companies inferred to be related.
These were identified by using information from corporate filings and company registries.
There could be more: Gibson from Canadians for Tax Fairness said the figures in the report are likely incomplete due to a lack of transparency required from companies.
Canadian Direct Investment in Tax Havens Grew A Hundredfold in 20 Years
The report’s definition of a “tax haven” provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has four simple components: an extremely low or non-existent tax rate, a separation of tax rates from the country’s regular economy, a lack of regulatory supervision and an absence of information exchange.
In other words, a region where money is kept solely to house excess profits that people or corporations wish to remain untaxed.
The best known tax havens are based in Caribbean countries, including Barbados, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas. The U.S. state of Delaware actually served as the most popular location for Canadian companies to house their money, sporting 472 subsidiaries from only 60 companies.
It’s virtually impossible to know how much companies actually store in these jurisdictions.
But as noted in the report, Canadian foreign direct investment (FDI) into the top 10 tax haven jurisdictions has increased from $2.1 billion in 1994 to more than $284 billion in 2016.
While companies might claim that such a spike is associated with productive investments, there’s a complete disconnect from local employment: in Bermuda, there’s only one person hired for every billion dollars in assets, increasing to a mere 16 people per billion in Barbados.
Dozens of notorious tax treaties and tax information exchange agreements (TIEAs) allow for the easy transfers of money between jurisdictions.
“We don’t know how much of this money is being hidden, how much of it’s being legitimately invested,” Acuña said.
“We’re trying to piece this together from information we don’t have. The government needs to crack down on what companies have to report out when they’re moving money around and in terms of their foreign direct investment.”
Canada Losing Estimated $10 Billion to $15 Billion Per Year
The report found Canada was missing out on an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion in taxes per year from the 60 companies listed.
Four of the oil and gas companies identified in the report were also listed in Canadian Business magazine’s 2014 investigation into corporations that were paying “unbelievably low tax rates.”
That investigation reported that over the course of a decade, CNRL, Enbridge, TransCanada and Suncor only paid between 13.6 per cent and 15.6 per cent of their income in taxes.
While companies like CNRL and Suncor receive significant deductions due to capital costs and royalty payments, such percentages are still extremely low when compared to the average Canadian’s tax rate of 42 per cent.
As noted by Acuña, it’s not enough to just increase corporate income rate rates or revamp the nonrenewable resource royalty framework if companies can continue to move their profits to low-tax jurisdictions. Such a move would have to be paired with a serious clampdown on rules about tax havens.
“The issue is that the law needs to change,” Gibson said. “You can’t crack down on legal tax avoidance.”
Billions Likely Needed in Coming Decades to Cover Environmental Costs
Gibson pointed to NDP MP Murray Rankin’s recently proposed private member’s bill as a good first step.
Bill C-362 would amend the Income Tax Act to deny tax breaks to financial transactions that “lack real economic substance.” That would ensure that earnings are taxed properly in the jurisdiction in which they’re made.
The report made several other recommendations. Those include requiring the Canada Revenue Agency to compile actual information and data on tax havens, renegotiating tax treaties to set a minimum threshold for tax rates, and taking a much stronger international leadership role.
Such conversations may take on additional urgency in coming years as costs of environmental and climate liabilities continue to mount for various levels of government, although Acuña expressed some skepticism about the federal government acting given Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s recent run-ins with similar issues.
“It sure looks like oil and gas companies are raking in the profits and stashing them away in tax havens, while Canadians are stuck with the mess they leave behind, including toxic tailings ponds, oil spills, and climate damages,” Patrick DeRochie, climate and energy program manager at Environmental Defence, told DeSmog Canada.
“Once you take away all the oil and gas subsidies and the money stowed away in tax havens, and start accounting for the massive costs to the environment and public health, you get an industry that is no longer economical.”
Image: Alberta oilsands. Photo: Kris Krug