Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis by June 3

Goal: $100k

The Canadian affiliate of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded multinational oil and gas corporation, has known for decades that its operations were causing environmental damage and contributing to climate change, according to newly-released documents from a Calgary museum.

The documents, a collection of archived internal corporate reports, contradict what the company, Imperial Oil, had been telling the public for years. They also reveal that the company went as far as describing its own actions, behind closed doors, as "anti-social."

The stunning revelations, uncovered by DesmogBlog, follow a wave of media reports from U.S. outlets such as InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times that have prompted attorneys general to investigate whether companies such as Exxon misled investors and the public about the impact of climate change on their businesses.

Exxon has dismissed these allegations as "politically motivated" and based on "discredited reporting funded by activist organizations."

The newly-released documents show that Imperial Oil - known for operating Esso gas stations in Canada - had extensive internal research about the environmental impacts of its oil and gas development that ran counter to many public statements made in recent decades by Exxon and its Canadian affiliate that cast doubt on whether humans were causing climate change.

Pollution is everybody's business

An internal Imperial Oil report from 1970 called “Pollution is everybody’s business” is among the documents in the collection at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. It was discovered by Kevin Grandia and Brendan DeMelle, two researchers from DesmogBlog - a website that investigates corporate campaigns that may be confusing the public about scientific evidence on climate change.

Authored by a chemical engineer named H.R. Holland from the company’s engineering division in Sarnia, Ontario, the report listed carbon dioxide in a chart of pollutants, warning that companies could not be expected to address pollution on a volunteer basis.

“A problem of such size, complexity and importance cannot be dealt with on a voluntary basis. The protection of the interests of society as a whole requires the establishment of legal controls on pollution and on other anti-social acts,” said the 1970 report.

"There is no doubt" that increased fossil fuel usage and deforestation were "aggravating" the problem of rising greenhouse gases, Imperial Oil said in an internal report from the 1970s. Photo by Sam Moore.

This runs counter to public statements made by Imperial Oil executives from the 1990s that said scientists were still debating whether rising carbon dioxide levels were warming the atmosphere. In 1998, Imperial Oil's then-chief executive officer, Robert Patterson, said that carbon dioxide was "not a pollutant" and that greenhouse gases had "no connection whatsoever with our day-to-day weather."

As recently as 2002, Imperial Oil was one of two Canadian oil companies, along with Talisman Energy, that sponsored an event organized by climate change science doubters on Parliament Hill who attacked the Liberal government of former prime minister Jean Chrétien and his plans at the time to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

High cost of action

The 1970 report also referenced published scientific research from 1969 about the impacts of greenhouse gases on the planet. The Imperial Oil document warned that pollutants were affecting everyone.

“Since pollution means disaster to the affected species, the only satisfactory course of action is to prevent it - to maintain the addition of foreign matter at such levels that it can be diluted, assimilated or destroyed by natural processes - to protect man’s environment from man,” said the report.

“The costs of reaching the solutions will also be very large, not only in dollars, but in additional restrictions on individual freedom of action.”

Imperial Oil donated the documents to the museum as part of a C$4 million gift.

Imperial Oil is known for operating the Esso chain of gas stations in Canada. Photo by Sam Moore

A separate internal Imperial Oil report from the 1970s - also from the museum archives - about climate change and other environmental issues praised a United Nations report on environmental issues as “excellent counsel.”

This document - described as a “Review of environmental protection activities for 1978-1979” - specifically linked the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But the widely-circulated internal document also warned that tackling the problem would cost a lot of money.

“It is assumed that the major contributors of CO2 are the burning of fossil fuels,” said the report, shared with Exxon executive from around the world in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. “There is no doubt that increases in fossil fuel usage and decreases in forest cover are aggravating the potential problem of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. Technology exists to remove CO2 from stack gases but remove of only 50% of the CO2 would double the cost of power generation.”

Exxon denies allegations

Exxon, the majority shareholder of Imperial Oil, said that its scientists had not reached any conclusions about climate change science in the 1970s.

"The allegations are based on the false premise that ExxonMobil reached definitive conclusions about anthropogenic climate change before the world’s experts and before the science itself had matured, and then withheld it from the broader scientific community," the company said in a recent blog post by its executive vice-president of public affairs and government affairs Suzanne McCarron. "Such a claim is preposterous. It assumes that the expertise of a handful of Exxon scientists somehow exceeded the accumulated knowledge of the global scientific community at the time, and that the Exxon scientists somehow were able to reach definitive conclusions before the science had developed."

McCarron also noted in the blog that Exxon's scientists were fully engaged in public discussion, openly sharing their research with other scientists and the public in peer-reviewed publications.

The current position of Exxon - the majority shareholder of Imperial Oil - on climate change is that it is real and likely caused by human activity.

"There is increasing evidence that the earth's climate has warmed on average about 0.7 C in the last century. Many global ecosystems, especially the polar areas, are showing signs of warming," the company says on its website. "CO2 emissions have increased during this same time period - and emissions from fossil fuels and land use changes are one source of these emissions.

Exxon has also confirmed that budgets in climate change research and other areas of the company were cut in the 1980s during an economic downturn, but restored when the economy rebounded. It says its employees are working to find solutions to environmental problems such as climate change.