Europeans should be wary of Ontario pension fund's ownership of airports and water services


The Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan now owns 48.25 per cent of the Birmingham Airport.

While aviation emissions account for about four to nine per cent of the total climate change impact of human activity, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan (OTPP) is expanding its portfolio of holdings in European airports. And with privatized airports and investor-state provisions in 'free trade' deals like the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), local residents, municipal councils and national governments will be in a weakened position to curb profit-driven airport expansions.

Reuters reports, "Canada's Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan said it had bought a 19.25 percent stake in Birmingham Airport from Australia's Victorian Funds Management Corporation, taking its investment in the British airport to 48.25 percent. ...Seven West Midlands district councils have kept a significant ownership of Birmingham Airport and will continue investing alongside Ontario Teachers."

In 2013 the airport had 9.12 million passengers, but the news report notes, "The Canadian pension fund wants to strengthen Birmingham Airport's position as a regional hub in the UK by tapping into its capacity of around 9.5 million passengers per year." In 2009, the Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council approved the extension of the runway length from 2,605 metres to 3,052 metres to handle this kind of expansion. Business Traveller reports, "The current runway places restrictions on an aircraft's weight at take-off and limits the maximum range of direct flights from Birmingham to the US east coast, the Middle East, Northern India and Pakistan."

But in July of this year, the Birmingham Mail reported, "More than 2,000 villagers living near Birmingham Airport have signed a petition calling for a rethink on flight paths following an outcry over noise levels. Residents in Balsall Common, Hampton in Arden and Catherine de Barnes claim their lives are being made a misery by trials launched in May."

Today's report in Reuters adds, "[The pension fund's] other airport investments include UK's Bristol, Copenhagen and Brussels. ...The Canadian pension fund became the sole owner of the UK's ninth busiest airport, Bristol, after buying out its co-shareholder Macquarie Group in September."

The Bristol Airport has also been controversial. The expansion of this airport was led by Stop Bristol Airport Expansion and supported by Bristol Friends of the Earth and Campaign to Protect Rural England. In 2005, the BBC reported, "The government says passenger numbers flying from Bristol will almost double to eight million a year by 2015." Bristol Friends of the Earth stated, "The expansion would be a climate change disaster. People and councillors across the area need to wake up to what the expansion will bring: traffic misery, increased noise, road schemes and countryside development."  And the World Development Movement noted that prior to the expansion the Bristol airport generated as much CO2 as the African country of Malawi.

In July 2014, Le Soir reported that the Brussels Airport is the most noise-polluting airport of thirty European airports in terms of the noise levels created and the number of people affected by take-off and landing operations. And while the Copenhagen Airport has set a target to reduce its CO2 emissions from 1.4 kilo to 1.0 kilo per passenger by 2020, the airport has also announced it reached "an all-time high of 25 million passengers" this year and over the coming two or three decades it seeks to handle 40 million passengers annually.

It would appear that the OTTP wants to own airports in France too.

This month, Bloomberg reported, "Canada’s Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and the Public Sector Pension Investment Board [the pension funds of the federal Public Service, the Canadian Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police] agreed to acquire a stake in a portfolio of more than $2 billion of renewable energy and water infrastructure assets owned by Banco Santander SA. The two funds will create a company with Spain’s biggest bank that will split ownership of the assets three ways..." El Confidencial adds, "The three investors want to take advantage of the wave of infrastructure assets that are to be sold in 2015, including Itinere, the highway concessionaire held by Citi and Sacyr, airports in France as well as renewable assets ACS and Acciona, which will public in Spain and the United States."

It's not clear what water infrastructure this deal includes, but Santander has previously owned shares in Thames Water in England and the Chilean water utility Aguas Nuevas. The Council of Canadians has been calling on the OTPP to divest from Empresa de Servicios Sanitarios del Bio-Bio SA (ESSBIO), Esval SA and Aguas Nuevo Sur Maule (ANSM), for-profit water utilities in Chile. The OTPP also owns 27 per cent of Northumbrian Water Plc, which sells its water services to about 4.4 million 'customers' in England.

In November 2014, the Council of Canadians and numerous allies in Europe, Canada and Quebec released a paper titled Trading Away Democracy. That report stated that, "CETA's investor protections would arguably grant even greater rights to foreign investors than NAFTA, increasing the risk that foreign investors will use CETA to constrain future government policy."

Further reading
The price of free trade is unchecked climate change (by Naomi Klein)
$8 billion down the drain in Ontario P3s (December 2014 blog by Michael Butler)
Ontario teachers must support water justice in Chile (September 2011 blog by Meera Karunananthan)
CETA would hinder water remunicipalization in England (November 2013 blog)