Amid record-breaking profits, leaders of some of Canada’s largest fossil fuel companies were raked across the coals by federal members of parliament Thursday over their failure to invest in decarbonization.

Suncor, Cenovus and Imperial Oil CEOs Rich Kruger, Jon McKenzie and Brad Corson respectively, joined by Enbridge vice-president Michele Harradence and Shell Canada president Susannah Pierce, faced the House of Commons environment committee to discuss their emission reduction efforts –– or lack thereof, according to critics.

Kruger said all companies represented Thursday are spending hundreds of millions on fuel switching, energy efficiency, developing new technology for further oil extraction and collaborating on a carbon capture and storage megaproject through the Pathways Alliance. He noted Canada has the world’s fourth largest oil reserves, calling it an “opportunity” to provide energy around the world.

“We can improve people's lives, increase Canada's prosperity and help tackle climate change,” he said.

Kruger also told the committee it was a myth that “oil and gas prosperity comes at the expense of the planet.”

“I believe this is false,” he said. “Profits and the planet are not mutually exclusive, they're mutually dependent.”

Kruger took the helm of Suncor just over a year ago and said at the time the company had previously been too focused on the energy transition and should focus on increasing the value of its oil business. In 2023, the Calgary-headquartered oil giant posted profits of $8.2 billion bolstered by higher oil production, as well as the layoff of 1,500 workers, which shaved $450 million per year off the payroll.

NDP environment critic Laurel Collins had Kruger in her cross-hairs, noting that he personally made $36.8 million in his first year as CEO as the company pivoted away from clean investments and doubled down on oil.

“When people are displaced from their homes, when hundreds die in heat domes, when people are scared to let their kids out to play because the smoke is too dangerous to breathe, how do you sleep at night?” she asked.

“When people are displaced from their homes, when hundreds die in heat domes, when people are scared to let their kids out to play because the smoke is too dangerous... how do you sleep at night?” @Laurel_BC asks Big Oil executives. #cdnpoli

In the fierce exchange, Kruger accused Collins of simply trying to “create headlines, point fingers and attempt to villainize the industry.”

Fellow NDP MP Charlie Angus told reporters Thursday morning the question of “how do you sleep at night?” isn't grandstanding.

“That’s the fundamental moral question of our age,” he said.

Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sector have skyrocketed from 118 Mt in 1990 to 217 Mt in 2022, according to the latest figures available. The sector is also the largest source of emissions in the country.

As emissions have grown, they’ve accumulated in the atmosphere, steadily pushing global average temperatures higher. Climate scientists unequivocally say for the climate to stabilize, slowing down the rate of accumulation is not enough. Greenhouse gas emissions have to ultimately stop before the planet can begin to recover. No executive discussed phasing out fossil fuel production in line with what climate science demands to avoid catastrophic warming.

Instead, most of the CEOs used their time to defend their efforts to clean up their fossil fuels’ emissions intensity (referring to the amount of emissions generated when producing a product like a barrel of oil) to justify selling oil and gas well into the future. However, improvements on emissions intensity can be quickly made irrelevant to the global climate if more oil and gas is extracted and burned.

Suncor, Cenovus and Imperial Oil executives frequently highlighted the Pathways Alliance’s proposed carbon capture megaproject to the House committee as proof of their commitment to net-zero. On behalf of Shell Canada, Pierce said the energy transition must be “balanced,” while Enbridge’s Harradence inaccurately said electricity is “inextricably” linked with fossil gas.

The oilsands CEOs spoke of steps they were taking to curb emissions, but no CEO would endorse further government regulation to achieve climate targets, such as the proposed oil and gas emissions cap. Instead, they requested more taxpayer money to support their efforts and downplayed their record-breaking profits in recent years, saying their business is cyclical.

In short, the executives insisted to the committee they could help decarbonize the world while increasing fossil fuel production if they had more government funding available and fewer regulations.

Holding feet to the fire

Over the course of the two and half hour meeting, Conservative MPs defended the fossil fuel companies’ climate action, and congratulated them for their contributions to the Canadian economy. Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs said the other parties were not engaged in a “good faith” investigation, were “disconnected from reality,” and that Canadian oil and gas helps lower emissions globally.

Parliamentarians from the Liberals, NDP, Bloc Québécois and Greens tried to hold the company officials' feet to the fire.

Bloc MP Monique Pauzé told executives, in French, that the “bottom line is we need to significantly reduce the balance sheet of your sector.” She also pointed to data published by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers confirming approximately $40 billion worth of investment flowing into the oil and gas sector this year alone.

“These sums will not go toward decarbonizing measures, but rather to increasing production… with no other ambition other than to maximize your profits,” she said. “You're not even capable of devoting the equivalent of a year's worth of profit to the climate transition… [instead] you're lining your shareholders’ pockets with taxpayer money.”

Given the world has already experienced global warming of 1.1C above pre-industrial levels, which paved the way for last year’s wildfire season where 185,000 square kilometres burned, Green MP Mike Morrice said it’s clearly up to parliamentarians to act because the CEOs offered no credible solutions to the crisis at hand.

Liberal MP Leah Taylor Roy took issue with some executives claiming the oil and gas industry is good for Canadians, saying most just want a safe climate free from wildfires, good health and economic justice.

Learning from Big Tobacco

NDP members of parliament are attempting to recreate the ‘Big Tobacco moment’ for fossil fuel companies.

The Big Tobacco moment refers to when top tobacco CEOs testified to the U.S. Congress in 1994, boldly — and falsely — claiming nicotine is not addictive. Two years after that hearing, all were under federal investigation for possibly lying under oath. By 1998, the four largest tobacco companies had entered into agreements with 46 states to pay more than US$200 billion in damages to help pay for health-care costs related to smoking.

Through the investigations into Big Tobacco, a corporate playbook to shirk responsibility for increasing cancer rates and defend profit margins was uncovered. To combat the overwhelming scientific evidence that smoking cigarettes cause cancer, tobacco companies fought back by casting doubt on the science, intimidating opponents, lobbying against government regulation and using front groups to mimic genuine grassroots support.

The fossil fuel industry is following the lead of Big Tobacco, Angus said. Now Big Oil is spreading disinformation about climate change and the industry’s role fuelling it.

Angus has first hand experience dealing with intimidation. In February, he tabled a private members bill that would ban misleading advertising from fossil fuel companies and was immediately inundated with death threats.

“As soon as you start to point the finger at them, the online rage machine comes out. We couldn't answer our phones for two weeks because of the threats and harassment we got,” Angus said. “What that told me is that they know their days of getting away with lying to the public are numbered.”

Angus added that in the 1980s and 90s the notion of taking on tobacco majors such as Imperial Tobacco and Benson & Hedges felt impossible, but it was crucial because those companies “knew they were killing people.”

The fossil fuel “industry knows what they're doing, they have made no effort to reduce [greenhouse gas emissions], and just as Big Tobacco knew they were killing generations, there's a moment where they have to come out into the spotlight and be seen and explain how they sleep at night.”

The parallels between Big Tobacco and Big Oil are striking, particularly as jurisdictions around the world, and in Canada, bring lawsuits against oil and gas companies to recover damages to help pay for climate adaptation.

In 2019, dozens of Canadian law professors penned an open letter arguing that as climate change worsens, the costs of emergency response, public infrastructure, disaster relief and more will continue to rise and local governments have limited options to raise the money needed. Litigation against fossil fuel companies, who are fully aware that burning fossil fuels causes climate breakdown, is one option to protect taxpayers from skyrocketing costs.

Since then, a campaign to sue Big Oil has spread. Two years ago in Vancouver, city councilors voted to set aside $1 per resident for a legal fund to sue large fossil fuel companies. U.S. states such as California and Michigan have also launched lawsuits and there are at least 30 complaints filed against fossil fuel companies across the country at the state, county and city levels.

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There is one big difference between Big Tobacco and Big Oil... The Tobacco industry mostly harmed those people who smoked, along with their friends and family subjected to second hand smoke. The O&G (and plastic) industry is killing all life on Earth, ushering in the planet's 6th mass extinction! I understand the similarities in the battle, but let's be clear on the consequences of losing this war.

It's fine to rake these CEOs over the coals, but what is Government going to do to stop them?