It was no accident Lowe had driven me out to have a look at the LNG terminal – which unloads natural gas from tankers that steam into Saint John’s port. The terminal is at the center of a bitter dispute pitting the region’s largest energy company, Irving Oil Ltd., against Saint John’s city hall. In so doing, it’s become a potent symbol of all the problems inherent with corporate welfare in Canada – and in New Brunswick especially.
Corporate welfare is often defined as grants, subsidies and even tax breaks or incentives bestowed by governments on large corporations. The subject has been in the news lately, in particular over the federal and Quebec governments’ decision to bail out Bombardier Inc., the troubled Quebec-based aircraft manufacturer. As an indicator of the sums involved, between 1961 and 2013, Industry Canada alone handed out $22.4 billion to businesses.
In the case of the Canaport LNG terminal, the $1.2-billion facility was conceived of more than a decade ago by Repsol, a Spanish energy company. Repsol had come to New Brunswick seeking a place to offload natural gas to import into the US market. The land they wanted to build the terminal on is owned by Irving Oil, which is controlled by Arthur Irving, an 87-year-old billionaire and one of Canada’s 10 richest men (total worth – US$4.4-billion). So Irving and Repsol formed a joint-venture.
But in 2005, Irving Oil's then CEO, Kenneth Irving – Arthur’s oldest son – informed the mayor of Saint John that unless the city gave the company a massive tax break on the land, the terminal would not be built.
The threat worked: the city agreed to cut the annual tax bill from $8.1-million down to a mere $500,000 – for the next 25 years. In so doing, the city was forsaking almost $200-million in tax revenue. The provincial government then passed a bill approving the tax concession. Meanwhile, the province itself had stopped charging taxes on the land more than 10 years earlier.
However, in 2015, the CBC revealed that Repsol was paying Irving Oil (US) $12.5-million a year in profits to rent the land – no matter how well the Canaport LNG terminal was performing. Irving also receives profits from the terminal itself. Outraged at being misled by Irving Oil, the city demanded the New Brunswick government tear up the tax break. Last summer, the province finally relented.
Saint John desperately needs the cash. “I would like to see [the Irvings] pay their fair share,” Lowe told me, pointing out the city struggles to pay wage increases for its workers. In fact, by last year, the city was facing a $76-million pension shortfall.
But Saint John’s victory was short-lived. Without formally informing the city, the provincial government hired Nationwide Consulting Company Inc., an obscure New Jersey-based tax assessment company with a record of helping oil companies like Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron Texaco and Shell lower their tax burden. Nationwide was asked to conduct a new assessment on the land where the LNG terminal stands. For years, the property and the terminal were valued at $300-million. But last month, Nationwide told the city the site was now worth only $98-million. “I don’t think it’s an accident,” says Lowe. “I think the province was quite worried.”
Thus, instead of getting $8.1-million, the city will now receive only $2.6-million in taxes from the property. And even that’s not assured if Irving Oil appeals the new assessment; they could pay even less.
To many who’ve watched this drama unfold, it follows an all too-familiar pattern of federal, provincial and municipal governments dishing out vast sums in subsidies, grants, tax breaks and loan guarantees to the Irvings and their armada of companies. “What Irving is doing is tunneling out the state and leaving nothing left behind,” remarks Donald Bowser, an international anti-corruption consultant who lives in Nova Scotia. “Irving is one of the most subsidized companies around.”
Which begs the question: are the Irvings the biggest corporate welfare bums in Canada?
Privately-held, the Irving companies receive huge sums from taxpayers
The answer is simple: it’s impossible to find out. That's because the Irving companies are all privately held, meaning they don’t have to reveal any financial information to the public - including how much they receive in government handouts, earn in profits, pay in taxes or invest. They also don't pay out dividends to shareholders - only members of the Irving family presumably receive the wealth.
“At least with a publicly-held company there is certain information in the marketplace where you can piece things together,” says Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF), which opposes corporate welfare. “If Irving is private, we have no idea what is going on, with no real public indicator, and I think just optically it’s even worse for government. You have an extremely wealthy, powerful family that is directly benefiting from average people’s taxes. I think that is scandalous. And again it feeds into public cynicism about corporate power in bed with government – and I think that’s a very bad thing.”
Still, the veil was partially pulled back last year when the US Dept. of Commerce released its findings into an investigation into J.D. Irving, Ltd. that examined some of the subsidies and tax breaks the forestry, shipbuilding, transportation and media conglomerate has been receiving. J.D. Irving is controlled by Arthur’s 89-year-old billionaire brother, James K. (JK) Irving, whose fortune is valued at (US) $7.2-billion. “The question is why the hell am I paying (taxes) at all when it is being transferred from me to them,” says Rob Moir, an economist at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Saint John. “You’ve got one of the richest corporations in Canada, in one of the poorest provinces and we are basically transferring them wealth – paying our taxes so they can get our subsidies.”
Do these subsidies and tax concessions actually work – creating more jobs and prosperity? “God only knows what the economic benefit is, if any,” says UNB economist Anthony Myatt. “That’s probably the long and the short of it. Nobody knows… In general you have this situation where the provinces are in desperate need of jobs. And all the time it’s throwing money at jobs and money at corporations who say they are going to come and create jobs. And sometimes these jobs materialize and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they stay for a little while, and no one is really sure.”
Wudrick notes that in the marketplace, "a business either doesn’t deserve free money from the government or doesn’t need it. Either a company is already profitable and making a lot of money, which begs the question why would they need extra money from the government, from taxpayers? Or they are losing money and the question becomes what makes them special? Why should they get money that any other business wouldn’t?”
In New Brunswick, the folly of such grants was revealed after the Liberal government of Shawn Graham handed over loan guarantees and grants totaling $70-million to Atcon Group of Companies, a construction company, in 2009. The Liberals approved the loan despite warnings from the civil service that Atcon was about to collapse and the province had given up the right to seize assets and sell them to recoup taxpayers’ losses. Indeed, the company went bust the following year and the scandal over the squandered money continues to this day.
Yet the Irving empire is far from being a basket case. Currently valued at an estimated $10-billion, and comprising of up to 250 companies in a wide range of industries, it’s divided into three separate corporate entities: the two largest of which are Irving Oil and J.D. Irving.
Moreover, the power and influence of the Irvings stretches across the Maritimes and New England into the cabinet rooms of the Trudeau and other provincial governments. The Irvings are spearheading the drive to build the $15.7-billion Energy East pipeline, designed to carry oil from Alberta’s tar sands 4,500 kilometres to Saint John where it will be exported to world markets. If built, it will be North America’s longest pipeline.
Yet how much of this wealth and power has been financed by taxpayers? And does the corporate welfare the Irvings receive really pay off for local workers and the tax base?
Irving Oil, J.D. Irving and Repsol all declined requests for comment from National Observer.
Meantime, the questions about subsidies are also being posed in Nova Scotia. In 2012, the provincial government gave one of J.D. Irving’s subsidiaries, Irving Shipbuilding, a $260-million forgivable loan (which means the loan becomes a grant as long as certain terms are met) to upgrade the company’s shipyard in Halifax. The government claimed the money was to help the company land a $26-billion federal government contract to build the Canadian navy a new fleet of ships.
But when Kevin Lacey, Atlantic Canada director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, asked to see a copy of the agreement between Nova Scotia and Irving Shipyard, he was turned down. The CTF was upset with the forgivable loan, says Lacey, because “why was a company receiving this massive taxpayer-funded contract from the federal government while also receiving one of the biggest subsidies in the province’s history?”
In the end it took Lacey more than four years, using Nova Scotia’s access to information laws, to finally get an uncensored copy of the agreement. Once he did, Lacey discovered that a loan guarantee the former NDP government had also offered Irving Shipyard totaled $200-million – which has not been required so far.
Graham Steele, the former NDP finance minister in the Nova Scotian government who negotiated the deal with the Irvings, did not respond to questions about why the province offered a forgivable loan instead of a straight loan.
And then last month, the union representing the Irving Shipbuilding’s workers in Halifax discovered that the company was subcontracting work to a Spanish firm, who were bringing in carpenters from Spain to work on the ships. Irving also admitted they were planning to bring in workers from Poland for the same purpose, while the company is seeking to hire an international recruiter. “I’ve been there 33 years in the yard, I’ve been involved and built over 24 ships in the yard. Then they tell us we can’t build a ship? Blows me away,” Steve Conrad, business agent for the Unifor/MWF Local 2 told the Chronicle Herald, Halifax’s daily newspaper. “When you think (of) the size of this contract that you can’t hire Canadians first, it’s just wrong on so many levels.”
As Don Bowser observes: “(The Irvings) always use this con job. They say ‘Give us this and this benefit and we will deliver jobs’, and they never do, and no one holds them to account. They give jobs to Europeans instead…”
Perfected the art of threatening governments to get concessions
Experts say the reason the Irvings get so much money from taxpayers is because of how much power they wield.
The empire was founded by K.C. Irving, the father of Arthur and James, who went to great lengths to avoid paying taxes. K.C. was in the forefront of exploiting offshore tax havens: by the ‘70s he had placed his companies in a trust in Bermuda, where he himself had moved by 1972, avoiding hundreds of millions in capital-gains taxes. By having his companies in the Bermudan trust, and through methods such as transfer pricing, K.C. cut his tax bill. “Bermuda is the North Korea of offshore centres when it comes to transparency,” says David Marchant, editor of Offshore Alert, a Miami-based website that covers the offshore tax industry.
The move offshore led to a Canada Revenue Agency investigation that discovered that by setting up subsidiaries in Bermuda, Irving Oil was, in one instance, able to lower its tax bill by $142-million. The Bermudan tax rate at the time was 0 per cent.
The Irvings' offshore structure is less clear today: Statistics Canada lists nearly a dozen Bermuda-based Irving companies. By 2012, at least $3-billion was being held in the Irving family’s various trusts in Bermuda. (J.D. Irving maintains they pay all taxes owing in Canada, and is owned and controlled by entities and Canadian citizens resident in Atlantic Canada.)
While the Irvings have exploited offshore tax havens, they’ve been at the front of the line seeking and receiving government handouts. Moreover, says Bowser, they are adept at using the high unemployment and poverty endemic to the Maritimes as leverage. “This is what they live for,” he asserts. “They bang their fist on the table and say ‘Here is what you are going to do for us – or (there will be no jobs)’.”
Indeed, the Irvings often garner government concessions by threatening to close factories, mills or companies. In 2012, for example, the provincial Progressive Conservative government of David Alward introduced a forest strategy in New Brunswick that held the line on Crown land being preserved for wildlife conservation. J.D. Irving, which owns the largest forest company in the province, quickly warned that its pulp and paper mills would remain closed and no new investment be made unless the government changed its mind. In a strongly-worded letter that J.D. Irving’s co-CEO, Jim Irving, wrote to Alward in 2013, he made it clear the government’s strategy “put jobs and investment in jeopardy.”
The threat worked: the following year, the Alward government introduced a new forest strategy that was very beneficial for J.D. Irving - including a cut in Crown lands set aside for conservation.
This past December, the CBC published an investigation which found that $3.5-billion worth of property in New Brunswick enjoys some kind of special tax treatment. All told, they estimated this had cost the province $380-million over nearly 40 years in lost revenues. They also noted that there is a 23-year freeze on the assessment of more than $2-billion worth of privately-owned timberland – meaning this property was being undervalued for tax purposes by as much as 90 per cent. All of this benefits the Irvings: after all, they are New Brunswick’s largest private landowner. In total, they own 1.8 million acres.
In 2013, it was discovered that $88,000 was being paid every year to the Moncton Wildcats hockey team by the city's taxpayers - to compensate the team for the lack of revenue-generating corporate boxes at the team's rink. The team is owned by Robert Irving, the co-CEO of J.D. Irving. It was learned the money was also designed to lure an Irving-owned business to Moncton, which received $35-million in loan guarantees from the provincial government - and was paying property taxes far below what it was assessed at.
US Dept. of Commerce investigation reveals massive subsidies and grants
Now new details of the extent of the Irvings’ access to the public trough has emerged.
It began when a pulp and paper mill in Point Tupper, Nova Scotia, shut down in 2011. The mill produces a form of glossy paper. The Nova Scotia government then stepped in to rescue the mill, ponying up $125-million in loans and grants to get it running again.
In the US, some of the mill’s American competitors viewed this bailout as an unfair subsidy and therefore contravened trade rules. In 2015, the US Dept. of Commerce began an investigation into four Canadian paper companies – including Irving Pulp & Paper Ltd., a subsidiary of J.D. Irving – to see what government subsidies and tax breaks and grants they were all receiving. Irving Paper runs three pulp and paper mills, and several saw mills, in New Brunswick.
Last year, the US Dept. of Commerce’s investigation was published, revealing a raft of government programs J.D. Irving and its subsidiaries have accessed, and continue to do so in many cases. These include:
Financial Assistance to Industry Program (FAIP) – this New Brunswick government program offers money to encourage companies to remain in the province. J.D. Irving has received loans and payroll rebates under FAIP. The loans were at rates lower than what is offered by normal lenders.
Federal Pulp and Paper Green Transformation Program (FPPGTP) – this federal government program offers grants to improve the environmental performance of Canada’s pulp and paper industry, including to J.D. Irving.
Total Development Fund (TDF) – Irving Pulp & Paper received grants from the New Brunswick government’s TDF, for things like building a research lab.
Northern New Brunswick Economic Development and Innovation Fund (NNBEDIF) – these are New Brunswick government loans, loan guarantees and non-repayable contributions paid to J.D. Irving for training workers and a capital investment project.
One Job Pledge – Irving Paper and J.D. Irving receive wage subsidy rebates under this program from the New Brunswick government for new hires who are university grads.
Atlantic Investment Tax Credit (AITC) – administered by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), Irving Pulp & Paper and J.D. Irving received tax credits under this program to encourage investment in Atlantic Canada.
Large Industrial Renewable Energy Purchase Program (LIREPP) – Started in 2012, LIREPP is a subsidy program offered by the local utility, NB Power, for pulp and paper mills. Three of Irving’s mills receive money from LIREPP.
Stumpage fees on Crown land - J.D. Irving has licenses to harvest trees on Crown land. But the company receives a break due to the New Brunswick government charging low amounts on its stumpage fees.
Silviculture grants – the New Brunswick government doles out grants to J.D. Irving to care for forests on Crown land, including planting.
License Management Fees (LMFs) – the New Brunswick government also gives money to cover J.D. Irving’s management expenses for harvesting forests on Crown lands.
Accelerated Capital Cost Allowance for Class 29 Assets – Irving Pulp & Paper and J.D. Irving receive tax breaks under this program for buying machinery.
NB Research and Development Tax Credit – J.D. Irving access tax credits under this program to carry out R&D.
But that’s not all: the US government also found seven other grants and subsidy programs J.D. Irving and its companies were accessing – including Canada Summer Jobs Program, and apprenticeship tax credits – but could not quantify their impact on duties.
The US Dept. of Commerce’s investigation did not disclose the actual dollar amounts J.D. Irving has received through these various programs – claiming this is proprietary information. Which is another issue that bothers critics of corporate welfare – how governments hide from taxpayers how much of money is given to corporations, and under what terms. “The main thing is that the electorate doesn’t know anything about it,” says Myatt, “and nor do opposition parties.”
In the end, the US Dept. of Commerce ruled that J.D. Irving and Irving Paper had violated trade rules by receiving all of these subsidies. As a result, in 2015, the company was hit with a massive duty on a certain kind of paper it exports to the States. J.D. Irving, with the support of the provincial and federal governments, has appealed the decision to the International Trade Commission in Washington (it's not unusual for Canadian governments to go to bat for companies in trade disputes). The company says they were not given an opportunity to argue its case prior to the ruling on the duty.
J.D. Irving declined to comment on this matter, but the company's filings say the U.S. decision on stumpage rates was based on "conjecture" and its silviculture reimbursements from the province did not fully cover Irving's costs.
Still, other evidence, such as government press releases, reveal some of the sums the Irvings received under these programs. For example, the federal government gave $22-million in 2010 to J.D. Irving to help it produce clean energy through the PPGTP program. In 2012, J.D. Irving received $33.4-million from the feds to improve the energy efficiency of its Lake Utopia and Saint John pulp and paper mills. The company's Lake Utopia mill also received a $500,000 grant from the New Brunswick government. In 2014, J.D. Irving received a $1-million grant from the federal government of to build a facility at its Sussex Tree Nursery, and another $1.4-million from the feds under its Atlantic Innovation Program.
Then there is the LIREPP subsidy handed out by NB Power. David Coon, the lone MLA for the Green Party in the New Brunswick legislature, argues this subsidy was created after Jim Irving lobbied for power rates to be lowered for industry in the province. “You can draw a direct connection to Jim Irving’s very public campaign over wanting to see industrial rates reduced,” says Coon.
By this winter, LIREPP had handed out an estimated $200-million to six pulp and paper mills – three of which are owned by J.D. Irving. Greg Hickey, a former NB Power engineer, who exposed LIREPP for a being a subsidy program masquerading as a renewal energy program, says it means average ratepayers are underwriting the Irvings’ operations. “It’s absolute corruption,” he says. “The government has been sucking the money out of the ratepayers to subsidize some of these mills.”
On the forestry front, there is evidence the New Brunswick government is subsidizing the Irvings to cut down forests on public lands – and losing money in the bargain. In 2010, CIBC World Markets did a report saying that for that fiscal year, the provincial government lost $32-million after paying out for forest, wildlife and regional management. Andrew Clark, a spokesperson for the New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners, recalls attending a forestry summit where the CIBC report’s author, economist Don Roberts, gave a talk. “Roberts suggested that if we had different managers of our Crown land that the province could make between $70-million to $240-million more than they were currently making,” he says.
Then, in 2015, the provincial auditor-general calculated that while gross timber royalties for 2012-13 totaled approximately $65 million, the budget for the Department of Natural Resources was $75-million. The auditor-general noted in her report: "Overall, there is limited publicly available information which describes the current forest management system and the state of the forest in New Brunswick."
Irving Oil also receives corporate breaks
But it’s not just J.D. Irving receiving corporate welfare: Evidence suggests Irving Oil gets the same handouts and tax breaks.
When city councilor Gerry Lowe and I were checking out the Canaport LNG terminal on the edge of Saint John last year, we also happened to be looking out at land that is not taxed by the provincial government, despite the fact that, along with the terminal, a huge oil tank farm also sits on it. Moreover, in 2013, the province sold a 500-acre lot of underwater Crown land to Irving Oil subsidiary in 2013 for $800,000. This land will prove useful if the company builds a terminal to unload oil from the Energy East pipeline. Yet this submerged land is being assessed as being worth only at a little more $160,000 on its tax bill.
Lowe also notes that Irving Oil’s refinery’s in Saint John, which is the largest in Canada, with the capacity to refine 320,000 barrels a day, has property tax bill of around $5-million a year. But in Alberta, refineries that together produce 300,000 barrels a day pay $15 million to $16 million. “I don’t think the playing field is level here in Saint John,” remarks Lowe. “I don’t think it is level in New Brunswick.”
In 2012, Irving Oil built an oil-by-rail terminal to import crude to its refinery. Three years later, the CBC found that the terminal pays just $19,300 in annual property tax—about half the $37,000 paid by the Tim Horton’s outlet that sits across the street.
Average New Brunswickers pay increasingly high taxes
While the Irvings are receiving massive subsidies and tax breaks and grants, the New Brunswick government is in dire financial shape and its citizens are among the highest taxed in Canada.
For fiscal 2015-’16 year, the province’s deficit was $260.5-million. Almost a third of the province’s budget comes from federal transfer payments. While the deficit was down from previous years, the province’s debt has soared to $14-billion. Moreover, the province raised additional money last year by increasing the HST by 2 per cent - from 13 per cent to 15 per cent. Meanwhile, NB Power continues to increases its power rates: last year, they jacked it up by almost 2 per cent. And this week, the utility will be announcing another increase of almost 2 per cent.
The New Brunswick finance ministry declined to respond to a list of questions sent by the Observer on government subsidies offered the Irvings.
New Brunswick has the fifth-highest tax rate in Canada for income taxes among families. At the same time, it has cut its top marginal personal tax rates. “It’s meant that people in small businesses and (average) households are having to pay an unfair share of taxes as a result,” says Green Party MLA David Coon. “You can see that shift both on personal income taxes as well as on property taxes.”
Andrew Clark says this situation exists because New Brunswick’s political class refuses to challenge the Irvings. “I have personally met with most of the premiers and talked to them... Most of them are pretty good guys who set out with good intentions and then the system chews them up and spits them out. They just don’t have the guts, that’s all there is to it.”
“The trouble is that the politicians are addicted to (corporate welfare),” notes UNB economist Tony Myatt. “And occasionally they will tout the jobs that they have created and so on. They don’t tout the number that they lose.”
Author: Bruce Livesey