Imperial Oil’s internal documents prove that they knew the realities of climate change decades ago— yet continued to confuse the issue in public as it continued to ramp up production. Murtaza Hussain, journalist for The Intercept, joins Team Advantage to discuss his recent piece, “Imperial Oil, Canada’s Exxon Subsidiary, Ignored Its Own Climate Change Research for Decades, Archive Shows.” Find out what Imperial Oil knew and when— and discover their interest in surveilling prominent members of the Canadian left.
Kate Jacobson: Hello, and welcome to the Alberta Advantage. I am your host, Kate Jacobson, and we are joined over the phone today by Murtaza Hussain, who is a writer for The Intercept.
Murtaza, thank you for joining us here on the Alberta Advantage.
Murtaza Hussain: Thank you for having me.
Kate: So you recently wrote a piece for The Intercept titled “Imperial Oil, Canada’s Exxon Subsidiary, Ignored Its Own Climate Change for Decades, Research Shows.” Some of our listeners might be aware of the fact that Exxon was aware of climate change and its effects as early as 1977, but they might not know that its Canadian subsidiary, Imperial Oil, was conducting its own internal research about climate change. Could you tell us a bit about where this information about Imperial Oil was uncovered and what you found out?
Hussain: This information about Imperial’s historical record was surfaced from an archive, a museum archive, in Calgary, to which Imperial had donated some of its historical documents about its operations. Essentially, the documents show, going back to the 1960s, that Imperial had known about climate change, number one – or, sorry, had known about the environmental harm that their operations were causing, and by the ’90s had known about climate change specifically with a high degree of confidence. But throughout that time, they had essentially developed strategies by which to confuse public opinion about the subject and give the impression that there was not the scientific consensus that in fact it exists about [anthropogenic] climate change.
Kate: So like you mentioned, the documents behind these stories were discovered in the Glenbow Museum archives, which, as you mentioned, are located here in Calgary, but my understanding is the archive hasn’t been fully examined. Do you know why that is?
Hussain: Well, there are a lot of documents in there, and yeah, it’s … There were even a few stories done before about certain aspects of documents, specifically the stance of Imperial towards carbon pricing, but, you know, as we go through them, there are more and more details about some of the pernicious aspects of Imperial’s operations over the decades, so it’s an ongoing project to see what in these documents may shed light about Imperial’s operations, but particularly its environmental record, and even more particularly, its record on climate change.
Kate: Mm-hmm. So you write that Imperial Oil used climate change projections of a melting Arctic to plan to exploit Arctic oil and gas. So my reading of this is that at the same time they knew the Arctic was melting, they were coming up with ways to make money off of it, all while stalling about the science of climate change. Am I understanding this correctly, or is it more nuanced than the cartoon villain sentence that I just read out?
Hussain: No, that’s pretty much the case. Imperial, by the ’90s, in response to public pressure, had developed a significant research capacity to gauge the full impact of its environmental practices. Now it’s very interesting to note that, for a long time, fossil fuel companies, Imperial included, were some of the leading researchers on climate change. The reason for this was because they were at the forefront of public scrutiny, and they had a very important interest in determining whether this was true or not, just for the sustenance and forecasting of their business operations. So by the ’90s, they had concluded with high confidence that this was real, decided they needed [unclear 00:04:16] and as well as electric cars and carbon capture and other techniques of reducing the impact of fossil fuel consumption on the environment.
But at the same time, while they were making these conclusions and scoping out what would be necessary, they were also, you know, forecasting the impact of Arctic ice melt on their ability to conduct extraction and shipping through the Arctic, and they had foreseen the melting of the Arctic and were planning how they might be able to exploit that to further their business operations. Now we even know from other reporting that ExxonMobil – and by extension, Imperial – they changed their – they modified their drilling platform in the Arctic specifically to accommodate a future in which the ice would melt. They knew to that degree of certainty this was going to happen, and while publicly stating quite the opposite.
Kate: So your piece makes mention that Imperial Oil calculated in 1991 that it would take a tax of over $100 a ton in today’s 2020 Canadian dollars to do anything about climate change. What did Imperial do with this information about effective carbon pricing?
Hussain: Well, they basically lowballed the figures considerably on what would be necessary for carbon pricing to – effectual in reducing the climate crisis – or, sorry, managing the climate crisis effectively. And, you know, the unfortunate reality is now that if we were to go to carbon pricing as a means of scaling back the crisis, something which has been deemed necessary for a long time, we’d have to have very, very high taxes – much higher than they would have had to be in the early ’90s when Imperial was lowballing with their own figures. You know, the economic impact will be far greater than what it would’ve been if we’d acted differently as little as two decades ago.
Kate: So in the 1970s, going a little bit further back, Imperial Oil was concerned about negative press and engaged in the surveillance of Canadians. Could you tell us a bit about who they were keeping an eye on and what specifically they were worried about?
Hussain: Well, going back to the ’60s, as you can see in these documents, Imperial was very concerned about negative public attention aimed at its environmental record, and it feared that this negative attention could result in calls for regulation of their activities. So, you know, to forestall that, they did two things: started a public relations campaign to win over the public and maybe manage their backlash over their environmental practices; and the second thing they did was they began surveilling nongovernmental organizations in Canada which they felt were scrutinizing their environmental record as well as, relatedly, their social impact of their operations. So one of the organizations they were surveilling was Canadian Arctic Resources Committee. And there were a few other [responsible 00:07:48] organizations that they were also interested in.
And the surveillance, they were, you know, gathering information about their finances, about their chief spokespeople, about their addresses. They were conducting what you could refer to as corporate espionage against people and groups who were much, much smaller than they were, and yet they seemed to feel threatened by their scrutiny.
Kate: So going through Imperial Oil’s 1976 document on Canadian pressure groups, I was surprised to find that one organization on the list was the Public Petroleum Association of Canada, and the document singles out some leaders of this organization who were involved with the left wing of Canada’s New Democratic Party and the Waffle movement – so people like James Laxer, Larry Pratt, Mel Hurtig, Mel Watkins – and the document seemed very concerned that the sensationalism of its positions and the attraction of platform speakers like David Lewis at public functions were attracting, like, media reports, and apparently this was all really about the fact that they were concerned about being nationalized. How accurate do you think Imperial Oil’s understanding was of the threat of nationalization? Were they actually at any risk of being nationalized by the Canadian state?
Hussain: You know, going back to that time, I can’t really say with confidence, but certainly there was a different political environment internationally, which you could describe as the left was closer to positions of power, and one of the popular ways of reining in the activities of large private corporations was nationalization. Now while it seems less – in the present environment, it seems far less likely that would take place, it’s unclear how close it was to happening at that time, but certainly it was on the roster of threats that Imperial perceived as realistic.
Kate: Jumping back a little bit to the 1990s, Imperial Oil clearly, as you outlined in this piece, had a really thorough internal understanding about the effects of fossil fuels and about climate change. What were they advocating for publicly at this time period?
Hussain: Well, in private, as you mentioned, or as I mentioned earlier, they were talking very frank – honestly about the need for renewables, electric vehicles, and carbon capture, and other means of reducing fossil fuel consumption. In public, around the same time and even for years later, Imperial leadership was essentially very strongly arguing just for maintaining the status quo of fossil fuel extraction and even making wildly unscientific statements – I would have to call them lies – about the impact of carbon emissions.
Now Imperial CEO Robert Peterson, in the late ’90s, repeatedly said that carbon dioxide is good for the environment, there’s no scientific consensus about the impact of climate change, or fossil fuel consumption on climate change … The leadership of the company made statements wildly at odds with their own private understanding of the seriousness and reality of this crisis, so they essentially advocated for doing more of the same, and in fact, they’ve continued doing the same even to the present day. Their extraction has increased year-over-year and there’s been no significant shift to renewables, despite the company privately conceding the necessity of doing this to avoid a climate crisis as early as the 1990s.
Kate: So Murtaza, you may be blissfully unaware of the influence of Imperial Oil and its executive that they have here in Calgary and in Alberta in general, but I would be remiss, I think, if I didn’t take the time here to let our listeners know that this company that, again, knew about the realities of climate change decades ago and basically did nothing, exerts a lot of influence in the media and at the policy level here in Alberta. So Jack Mintz is currently on the board of directors of Imperial Oil. He is also a director of the Imperial Oil Foundation, which doles out, oh, you know, six, seven million dollars a year to organizations and communities where Imperial Oil operates in order to buy support, and in 2008, he helped to found the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, and then Imperial Oil CEO, Tim Hearn, retired and donated a million dollars to the School of Public Policy, which puts out some very petro-state-friendly research.
Imperial Oil Director Jack Mintz also likes to write pieces that get printed in the Postmedia chain, like the Financial Post, the National Post, the Calgary Herald, that oppose regulation, taxes, carbon pricing, and promote a lot of right-wing talking points, so they will have titles like “Carbon pricing has been fully exposed as just another tax grab” or “Albertans are pondering the nuclear option of separation” or “Everyone’s racing to copy the U.S. economic miracle except Canada,” so Imperial Oil really continues to have this far-reaching impact in Calgary, and particularly in how public policy and public discourse is shaped. Does it surprise you that an organization with the capacity and the reach of Imperial Oil, like, is able to maintain kind of this level of power in our society over so many decades?
Hussain: No, it doesn’t surprise me, unfortunately. You know, they have privileged access in the Canadian political system by virtue of their economic power. There have been inconsistent and limited attempts to rein in their activities by the federal government, and they’ve essentially been able to do as they please for many decades. Specifically, this is the success of their own policy of avoiding regulation. They’ve succeeded in avoiding regulation despite decades of scrutiny of their environmental record by nongovernmental activists and even some members of government. You know, unfortunately, this is a trend that we see around the world, and despite its democratic institutions, Canada has not been invulnerable to such corporate malfeasance.
Kate: Mm-hmm. So an analogy that is used a lot with oil companies like Exxon and Imperial Oil is that they are the modern equivalent of tobacco companies. Do you think this is a good analogy, and do you think these companies can knowingly cause climate change and get away with it?
Hussain: Yeah. I think that the tobacco analogy is good in some ways, but then it limits – it doesn’t capture the full scope of how bad the climate crisis is much worse than the tobacco crisis.
Hussain: It’s the same as in, both industries, major companies lied, you know, very forthrightly about the impact of their product. But the impact of tobacco is horrible on hundreds of millions of individual people and continues to be. The impact of climate change could make the human civilization as we know it impossible within our lifetime. That’s not a hyperbolic statement. It’s the logical conclusion from the International Panel on Climate Change on their own findings. We are creating a problem from which there’s no escape, and regardless, even if you’ve never burned any fossil fuel in your life or have never used any carbon-intensive products, or use very little of it, your life could be destroyed as a result of these very specific lies by a very small group of people that took place over the last several decades.
Now, you know, tobacco industry eventually was reined in, but fossil fuels are a much bigger beast to tame. I think that there’s now some public momentum to do so. It’s not guaranteed, but either way, we’re very late in the game now for the type of regulation that was needed for many decades.
Kate: Authors like Kate Aronoff have suggested that fossil fuel executives should be tried for crimes against humanity. Do you think the kind of evidence that you’re finding could contribute to making this kind of argument?
Hussain: Well, it’s difficult for me to say because I’m not a legal expert, but I’ll certainly say that the seriousness of the crime and seriousness of the transgressions that appear to have been committed, and the seriousness of the deceptions that have been foisted on the public for years and years, and the ongoing and expected human impact of these deceptions, certainly cry out for serious legal remedy. And, you know, crime against humanity, just in the nonlegal colloquial sense of the term, I think it’s absolutely crime against humanity – maybe the biggest crime against humanity ever committed, in the sense that it will affect all humanity and the entire planet.
Climate change is the single biggest thing that human beings have ever done. They successfully are in the process of modifying the climate and modifying the very broad – sorry, very narrow range of circumstances that made life on earth possible, in the sense if you look at the solar system and you look at the galaxy, there are very few planets which are in the exact range of physical circumstances that they can support life. That’s why it’s very hard to find life on any other planets. But the earth is in a very small, very narrow band of circumstances that makes life possible. We are literally moving ourselves out of that narrow band and moving – creating something closer to a planet like Venus, where human beings obviously could never live and could never have grown in the first place. That is the seriousness and the magnitude of what’s going on here.
So, you know, a legal remedy, I think, should be the bare minimum for people responsible for this. In reality, there’s nothing really we can do to get enough justice and retribution for what’s happened, but certainly, financial and jurisprudential consequences should be taking place.
Kate: I absolutely agree. Murtaza, thank you so much for joining us here on the Alberta Advantage. If listeners want to follow your work, where should they look?
Hussain: You can just follow me on Twitter, and my Twitter is @MazMHussain, and whenever I have new articles, I post them up there.
Kate: Cool. Perfect. Thank you so much for coming on our podcast and talking with us about this article.
Hussain: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.