Chronicles of a greasy campaign

Fighting the causes of increasingly catastrophic weather should never have become controversial. The investigative reporter Geoff Dembicki has written an engaging, enraging, and meticulously documented chronicle of how it did. This has been no ordinary corporate deception. Dembicki’s story reveals nothing less than the betrayal of our planetary future by the fossil fuel industry.

One point must be made at the outset. Right-wing politicians, operatives, and media commentators have certainly been complicit in a decades-long disinformation campaign on the contribution of fossil fuel consumption to anthropogenic global warming, or AGW. But, as Dembicki himself convincingly shows in The Petroleum Papers: Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change, that campaign was driven from the beginning by the wealthy and powerful companies themselves. The full title of the book, then, seems rather misleading.

The considerable evidence Dembicki cites is almost all publicly accessible, but he had to wade through a veritable mountain of documents and conduct numerous interviews to assemble the widely scattered material with which he makes his case. In the course of writing The Petroleum Papers, Dembicki felt “rising waves of anger at what I was discovering and piecing together.” That and a sense of deep despair: “I could see nothing but lost years, a window of opportunity spanning more than half a century, repeatedly and forcefully shut by powerful interests who’ve known and suppressed the truth.”

While the phenomenon of AGW has been recognized for well over a century — Popular Mechanics, for example, published a short squib on the subject in 1912 — it was long considered tomorrow’s problem. But vague unease gave way to increasingly active concern in the 1950s, as the reality of steadily rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, a major cause of global warming, became more evident.

One warning came from Edward Teller, a theoretical physicist renowned for his work on the hydrogen bomb. “It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York,” he told a symposium convened by the American Petroleum Institute in 1959. “All the coastal cities would be covered, and since a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions, I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.” When asked to elaborate, he responded, “It is hard to say whether it will be two degrees Fahrenheit or only one or five. But when the temperature does rise by a few degrees over the whole globe, there is a possibility that the icecaps will start melting and the level of the oceans will begin to rise.”

In the mid-1960s, the American Petroleum Institute commissioned two Stanford Research Institute scientists to carry out a study of global warming and the petroleum industry. Their report, issued in 1968, painted a dire picture of what would happen if atmospheric carbon emissions reached 400 parts per million. (The concentration is presently 417.31 ppm.) The scientists urged that these emissions be “brought under control.” That same year, Sun Oil began piping out bitumen from the Alberta oil sands, beginning a flow that has subsequently amounted to billions of barrels.

The evidence kept mounting. In 1970, an Imperial Oil engineer named H. R. Holland called for “legal controls on pollution as on other anti-social acts.” Seven years later, a scientist working for Imperial Oil’s parent corporation, Exxon, warned executives that if greenhouse gas emissions weren’t slowed, global temperatures could rise by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius. In 1980, an industry research group called the CO2 and Climate Task Force predicted cataclysmic climate change as early as 2025.

Exxon’s scientists were fully aware of the greenhouse effect by 1981. But the oil companies were hearing what they didn’t want to hear, while their lucrative projects in Northern Alberta kept expanding and the flow of bitumen kept increasing. Something had to give — and it wasn’t going to be corporate profits. Ignoring their own experts, the companies chose the path of public deception. The approach was summed up in a memorandum in 1998 from the American Petroleum Institute: “Victory will be achieved when . . . average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science.” In 2017, two Harvard researchers contrasted the content of Exxon’s advertisements with its internal research on climate. Exxon, they showed, had deliberately engaged in misleading public statements, including outright denial. As late as 2000, for instance, the oil giant ran an advertisement in the New York Times that suggested climate change wasn’t real — and that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was beneficial for crops and forests.

But the tide seemed to be turning by 2007, driven by public concern and a growing environmental movement. As prime minister, Stephen Harper called global warming “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today.” Even Exxon was conceding that GHGs should be curbed. At the same time, however, Harper was muzzling federal climate scientists and suppressing their research, while Exxon was funding organizations that promoted outright climate change denial. A senior Exxon scientist called out this two-faced approach at an internal meeting in 2020, also noting that his company’s GHG emissions were set to rise another 20 percent in the following five years. Shortly afterwards, he was looking for another job.

Perhaps the most effective proposal for reducing emissions over the long term was carbon pricing, suggested as early as 1990 in Brian Mulroney’s Green Plan. It would make polluters pay for their pollution, while encouraging the transition away from fossil fuels and toward alternative energy and green jobs. Imperial Oil crunched the numbers and realized that carbon pricing would indeed be a potent anti-warming weapon; it would also threaten the continued — and already expensive — extraction of Alberta bitumen. A blizzard of misinformation followed, and the opponents of a “carbon tax” show no signs of letting up even to this day.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that the issue of climate change found itself interwoven with right-wing politics. In the United States, the wealthy Koch family owns a massive refinery in Pine Bend, Minnesota, which processes Alberta bitumen. Charles Koch, along with his late brother David, has famously bankrolled innumerable conservative and libertarian causes and funded many lobby groups that claim AGW isn’t happening. Conservative politicians who favour private enterprise and lax regulatory regimes have lined up with the petroleum industry as well.

But it would be a mistake to pose matters so starkly. Even Rupert Murdoch, the feisty conservative Australian news baron, had begun taking climate change seriously by 2006. Around 2010, his company actually hired the well-known Republican strategist Frank Luntz to find a way to sell carbon pricing to the American people. But the Koch brothers fought off such initiatives with raw power, underwriting the far-right Tea Party movement and frightening wavering members of Congress into defeating a cap-and-trade carbon pricing measure.

Conservative lawmakers were not the only bad political actors in this tangled tale, however. As prime minister, Justin Trudeau introduced a carbon tax in 2019, but he also bought the Trans Mountain pipeline, between Alberta and British Columbia, and promoted its expansion; approved natural gas terminals on the West Coast; and, before it was cancelled by Joe Biden on his first day in the White House, vigorously supported the Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. One step forward, one step back.

Canada’s GHG emissions are on the rise, and our paltry measures to fulfill the 2015 Paris Agreement, which calls for limiting future global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, have been deemed “highly insufficient” by the scientific consortium Climate Action Tracker. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Biden’s ambitious green legislation — the Build Back Better Act — was gutted by Joe Manchin, the renegade Democratic senator from West Virginia who has strong ties to coal.

Small wonder that Dembicki ends his book on a note of quiet despair. The political will is simply not there to do what is required to stop climate catastrophe. Can the fossil fuel companies be sued successfully, as big tobacco finally was? The tobacco giants had to admit that they knew all along that tobacco causes cancer and were ordered to pay reparations in the hundreds of billions. There are more than twenty lawsuits presently active against fossil fuel companies for concealing their own knowledge of GHGs and their effects on climate change. But even if the plaintiffs were to win, so what?

Emissions hit a record high in 2022. We continue to see blistering heat waves, more intense hurricanes, raging forest fires, the melting of glaciers, and a probably irreversible shrinkage of the polar ice caps. The United Nations has now conceded that there is “no credible pathway” to confining global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Dembicki has chronicled fifty years of wasted time in this immensely readable, scathing indictment of an industry. In particular, he shows how stakeholders in the oil sands continue to “rely on the same tricks” to protect their bottom line: “burying the science on climate change, distorting the public debate, financing right-wing operatives, and attacking legislation that could limit emissions.” Relatively moderate measures might have turned the looming crisis around decades ago. Now, thanks to consummate greed and criminal short-sightedness, it’s quite likely too late.