Commentary | If I had a billion dollars…

I would give it to the richest oil companies in the world?

Obviously not. Unless I was a member of the current Canadian government that is. And even then, it’s closer to one and a half billion.

Each year the federal government gives $1.4 billion in subsidies to the oil industry through accelerated tax cuts and credits. That is $1.4 billion a year that is not going toward creating good, green jobs. It is $1.4 billion taken out of public services like health care, education, or immigration services, and $1.4 billion dollars that are not going into making post-secondary education affordable.

Oil and gas companies certainly don’t need the money. Take BP, for example, currently involved in Albertan tar sands production. Despite losing approximately $17 billion due to the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill, they still turned a $1.7-billion profit in the third quarter of 2010. Exxon-Mobil, another company with their fingers in the tar sands, recorded the highest profits of any company in history during the 2010 fiscal year.

Oil companies are doing just fine on their own.

On the other hand, skyrocketing tuition fees are forcing both students and their families to take on crippling student debt, and preventing many from pursuing post-secondary education. Collective student debt in Canada has now reached $15 billion with the average student borrowing $4,575 in loans per year.  If the $1.4 billion currently going to oil companies was instead converted to student grants, two-thirds of all student loans taken out last year and the subsequent debt amassed could be eliminated.

Why is the government putting our money into the pockets of wealthy oil companies instead of using public funds to reduce our dependence on oil or make post-secondary education affordable and accessible? It’s a good question, but instead of giving us a straight answer, Prime Minister Stephen Harper prefers to avoid it entirely, or return to his fall back line that the tar sands are vital to the Canadian economy. Not only has this conclusion been questioned by labour groups, economists, and environmental organizations, but it also assumes that Canadians want a country whose economy is based around the extraction of a dirty, limited resource.

Recent polls conducted by Léger Marketing show that 70 per cent of Canadians support reducing these subsidies. Moreover, Canada has already committed internationally to eliminate them. During the 2009 G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, world leaders, including Harper, promised to begin phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.  Harper has yet to live up to this promise.

In November 2010, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty warned Canadians that he would be tightening the purse strings in this year’s budget, and looking to reduce spending. With austerity budgets around the globe freezing up spending on essential social services like health care and education, and similar plans expected for Canada as stimulus spending winds down, we simply cannot afford to give away $1.4 billion a year to those people who need it the least.

Amara Possian is a U3 Political Science and Middle East Studies (Joint Honours) student, and a Montreal representative of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition. She can be reached at amara.possian@mail.mcgill.ca.


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