Why would Canada spy on Brazil mining and energy officials?

It’s likely we will never know exactly what Canadian spies were allegedly doing snooping around in Brazil’s Ministry of Mining and Energy computers. But some of the happenings in the South American country's natural resources department in the last few years may provide a few clues.

Department of Mining and Energy is tasked with auctioning rights to develop Libra Oil Field

Head spy won't talk

10 years ago
Duration 1:46
Julie Van Dusen tries to get answers from John Forster, the head of the Communications Security Establishment.

It’s likely we will never know exactly what Canadian spies were allegedly doing snooping around in Brazil’s Ministry of Mining and Energy computers on behalf of the so-called Five Eyes — an intelligence alliance between the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

But examining some of the happenings in the South American country's natural resources department in the last few years might provide a few clues.

In 2007, Brazil announced it had discovered the largest oil patch to date on its territory.

Maria das Gracas Silva Foster, the CEO of Brazil's state oil company Petroleo Brasileiro (Petrobras), waves at the National Congress building in Brasilia on Oct. 7, 2013. Brazil is seeking to auction off the rights to help the company develop the Libra Oil Field. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

The Libra Oil Field is estimated to contain between eight billion and 10 billion barrels of oil. That's enough to keep oil platforms busy for 100 years and make it the largest known deposit outside of OPEC countries.

It’s a big deal.

Brazil decided its largest energy company — Petrobas — likely needs help to properly exploit the resource, so it has proceeded with a plan to auction off the rights.

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The Department of Mining and Energy is in charge of the auction.

Contract fails to attract many companies

With an oil deposit this large, Brazil was expecting about 40 companies from around the globe to take a shot at landing the contract.

But when registration closed on Sept. 19, only 11 companies had signed up and paid the deposit of 2.1-million real (the Brazilian currency, or almost $1 million).

The largest of those were Chinese companies — including CNOOC and Sinopec — and Malaysia’s Petronas. Canadians may be familiar with these companies because all have made moves to invest in Canada's energy sector in recent years.

What had market analysts scratching their heads when registration closed, though, was the companies that didn’t apply: Exxon, Chevron, BP — some of the world’s largest petroleum producers took a pass on the project.


When contacted, the companies said they wouldn’t publicly discuss their business decision-making process.

So, we are left wondering why not one energy company based in the U.S., U.K., Canada, New Zealand or Australia is participating in an auction for what is billed as the largest oil find in 40 years.

And how they got the information on which they based their decision.

We do know that Canadian energy sector stakeholders regularly meet with Canadian government officials to discuss security and threats to the energy infrastructure.

The classified briefings take place every six months at the offices of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and are attended by representatives of many government agencies including CSIS, RCMP and CSEC. 

The stated purpose of the meetings is "to discuss national security, criminal intelligence, threat risk assessment and to share energy-related classified intelligence."

One of the briefings' chief organizers has said publicly that the get-togethers also provide an opportunity for energy stakeholders to develop relationships with other participants and have "off the record" conversations with them. 

The condition being: they tell no one where they obtained their information.

Read the documents, obtained under Access to Information:



James Fitz-Morris

Parliament Hill

James Fitz-Morris covered federal politics in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau from 2006 to February, 2016.