Collateral Damage

Tony Edwards Energy, Everything Else, My Published Articles

Buried amongst the memorabilia I’ve collected through my life is a thank you letter I once received from the Master of the Universe. OK, technically speaking it was from the Master of the SS Universe, a massive oil tanker that traversed our west coast waters back in the early 90’s. On a very nasty night I had co-piloted a Labrador Search and Rescue helicopter with a team of six that flew 200 miles out into the Pacific to airlift a severely ill crewmember of the SS Universe to the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria.

This was a dangerous rescue conducted in harsh weather and darkness, the sea heaving violently while we hoisted two SAR Techs and our patient off the deck of the tanker. It was the type of work that made us highly sought after by commercial helicopter interests, particularly those companies operating in marine settings such as the offshore oil industry.

While I was sweating behind the controls of a 25-year old helicopter, BC based Okanagan Helicopters and Newfoundland’s Sealand Helicopters were joining forces into what has since become the world’s pre-eminent provider of offshore oil services, CHC Helicopters (Ticker FLY on the Toronto Stock Exchange). CHC has absorbed competitors from England, Norway, Australia, South Africa and Holland, run their global operations from headquarters in Richmond, BC, and are a highly successful homegrown business that many Canadians are unaware of.

I resisted the lure of a fat paycheque with CHC Helicopters but many of my friends and associates did not, and a few of them are still plying their trade with CHC in some very far flung corners of the world. I have enormous respect for the challenges they face and wish them all the best as they tell me of their adventures with CHC in Nigeria, Georgia (think Tbilisi not Atlanta), Burma and Brazil – some of the 35 countries in which CHC operates.

Ooops, did I mention Burma? I recall an evening not long ago when many of us from the pilot fraternity had gathered to celebrate the life of a friend who had perished in a helicopter accident. One of my old ‘brothers’ (there were ‘sisters’ there too) told me that during his time in Burma he had witnessed soldiers in a field playing an impromptu game of soccer with a human head. From recent reports, the value of a human life under Burma’s current regime is still insignificant.

The ‘situation’ in Burma is quite likely a major burr in the butt for CHC’s Chairman Mark Dobbin, born and raised in Newfoundland, and son of founding member Craig Dobbin. I have a little sympathy for him. CHC has a great reputation to uphold and they can often be found on the front lines of humanitarian aid, providing helicopter services to the United Nations for instance. But, while Mr. Dobbin may try to justify his company’s presence in Burma by pointing out how many jobs they create for the local population, I doubt his company’s balance sheets can reconcile the jobs they provide with the number of Buddhist monks who have been terrorized, jailed and executed during CHC’s tenure in Burma.

He may want to argue that CHC only provides services to other foreign multinationals operating in Burma, chief among these with Total, the French oil giant. But how does this arms-length relationship with the sorry state of affairs in Burma absolve them of any responsibility towards its perpetuation?

(See www.burmacampaign.org.uk/dirty_list/dirty_list.html for a comprehensive list of companies doing business in Burma).

CHC’s operations in Burma could be shut down with little direct effect on their balance sheet. The bigger issue in Mr. Dobbin’s mind must surely be how such a withdrawal would affect their contracts with Total elsewhere in the world, or with British Petroleum on the Central Asian pipeline, with Unocal in Thailand or Exxon in Chad. Taking a stand on human rights abuses in the countries where they operate could lead to a slippery slope for CHC. And even if they were inclined to influence regime change in places such as Burma, it would require support from their oil drilling customers in order to have any real meaning. A cold day in hell you say?

Shareholders and management of CHC are caught between a rock and a very hard place given their willingness to service the oil industry wherever they may operate. The corporate governance guidelines and core principles by which they operate make no reference to propping up evil empires. But CHC’s institutional shareholders, who include Canadian banks, North American mutual fund companies, and CHC’s largest shareholder, the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, are unlikely to pressure them on this issue given the slippery slope repercussions.

With apologies to my friends who fly with CHC, my countrymen in Alberta and Newfoundland, and anyone else I may offend, my gut tells me that the demise of the oil industry can’t come soon enough. However it takes a leap of faith to think that alternative fuels will allow this to occur before the last drop of oil is sucked from the earth, or the last life lost to collateral damage.

So back to the grassroots it is, you can vent to Mr. Dobbin at P.O. Box 5383, Stn. C,
St. John’s, NL A1C 5W2, and individual investors can perhaps express their personal values by reviewing whether they wish to own CHC Helicopters through the mutual funds in their own RRSP or investment accounts.