Internal docs reveal that Canada's Exxon subsidiary knew about climate change risks and lied about it for decades

Imperial Oil is Exxon's Canadian subsidiary, with control the majority of Canada's tar sand oil — the filthiest, most climate-damaging oil in the world. Calgary's Glenbow Museum has a largely unregarded archive of historical internal Imperial Oil documents, which were retrieved by Desmog and the Climate Investigations Center and turned over to The Intercept.

The Intercept's Murtaza Hussain reports that even as then-CEO Robert Peterson was publishing articles where he asserted that there was "absolutely no agreement among climatologists on whether or not the planet is getting warmer or, if it is, on whether the warming is the result of man-made factors or natural variations in the climate…carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but an essential ingredient of life on this planet" — he was also being briefed by Imperial Oil's own scientists that its own oil was a major factor in dangerous global warming.

The archives reveal how, since the 1960s, Exxon and Imperial had been working to discredit activists and scientists who were alarmed by the pollution from the oil industry, and how they maintained a surveillance apparatus that spied extensively on activist groups, doxing their participants. At the same time, the company created internal plans to capitalize on polar ice-cap melting and other effects of climate change (last year, the company helped launch a fleet of icebreakers that will clear a path for liquefied natural gas transport across the melting Arctic).

The picture that emerges from these internal documents is of a company that understood that its activities were a threat to our planet and our species, and whose response to that understanding was to deliberately obfuscate the truth while doubling down on its oil extraction, even as it made plans to profit from the misery it was creating.

As the environmental toll of its operations continued to build and public anger rose along with the damage, Imperial gradually began developing its own environmental research capacities. By the early 1990s, the company's in-house researchers had made some important findings: Not only was the Earth's climate being dangerously heated up by the emission of greenhouse gases, but Imperial's own operations were also playing a role in this potentially existential threat.

As the astonishing scale of the climate crisis slowly came into focus, the company began gaming out possible responses. Researchers at Imperial analyzed different ways of reducing the carbon footprint of energy production and gradually moving society as a whole toward renewables, including the possibility of underground capture and storage of carbon emissions, solar energy production, and electric vehicles.

Yet the company's leadership remained fixated on ensuring that whatever was done shouldn't be too much and, most important of all, that it shouldn't result in government regulation of Imperial's operations. A 1990 document, "Response to a Framework for Discussion on the Environment – The Green Plan: A National Challenge June 1990," was published in the context of a high-level debate then taking place in Canada on developing a sustainable economy. In the document, Imperial warned that stakeholders in government and private industry should be careful to not "out-green each other." Any discussion of environmental controls must be carefully balanced with concerns about how regulating the oil industry might harm the Canadian economy, the report emphasized, calling for approaches to climate change that "rely as much as possible on the market means to provide economically appropriate information and incentives."

Imperial Oil, Canada's Exxon Subsidiary, Ignored Its Own Climate Change Research for Decades, Archive Shows [Murtaza Hussain/The Intercept]