Imperial Oil Document Trove

Overview of Imperial Oil Document Archive Published on

Imperial Oil Limited, Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary, took a very different path from Exxon in the U.S. thirty years ago, revealing the vulnerabilities and strategies of an oil company in the age of climate crisis. While Exxon was laying low in the late 1980s – early 1990s, biding time in the U.S. during the George H.W. Bush administration, Imperial was forced to react to urgent policy initiatives on climate change being advanced by the Canadian government.  

New analysis by the Climate Investigations Center and DeSmog of Imperial Oil documents from a Canadian archive offer a window into the company’s work to intervene and undermine the Canadian government and stop measures that would impact the company economically, while appearing to be a thoughtful participant in the dialogue around climate change.

This new collection of Imperial documents, including numerous never-before-on-the-internet documents, marks the most in-depth look at Imperial’s climate science and policy history to date.

The easiest way to search 300+ documents in this collection is via the DocumentCloud search interface. Access the full collection here.

These documents help shed new light and add context to previous reporting in 2015-2016 on Exxon/Imperial’s climate change legacy by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times/ Columbia Journalism School project . LA Times researchers first visited the Glenbow archive in 2015. Inside Climate News reporting in late 2016 utilized some key documents from the Imperial archive.

DeSmog’s first research trip to the Imperial archive in late 2015  revealed a previously unknown document with an unequivocal 1980 statement by Imperial’s chief Environmental Protection Coordinator, who wrote, “There is no doubt that increases in fossil fuel usage and decreases of forest cover are aggravating the potential problem of increased CO2 in the atmosphere.”. Desmog also found an Imperial document called “Pollution is Everybody’s Business” that has a table listing CO2  as a “pollutant,” something the oil industry and others have fought tooth and nail to avoid ever since because if CO2 is officially a “pollutant,” it means it can be regulated.

The Imperial climate research program appears to have initially been launched in the 1970s, in response to growing public relations concerns over the company’s environmental record in Canada. The level of engagement by Imperial, and the conclusions the company drew from its own research, stand in contrast to the disinformation campaigns Exxon and other corporate forces launched soon thereafter through groups like the Global Climate Coalition and Cooler Heads Coalition. These campaigns were designed with the explicit goal of undermining a global response to climate change by instilling “uncertainty,” misleading the public, media, and Congress about the looming crisis. Review of this document collection shows that Imperial’s research and its public policy engagement on climate change policy and science continued in earnest into the early 1990s, whereas Exxon’s climate science  program was sharply curtailed in the early 1980s. And by the mid to late 1990s, Imperial and Exxon emerged as ringleaders of climate doubt, uncertainty, and eventually outright denial.

Reporters and investigators have sought evidence of when exactly Exxon, as a company, abandoned a path of thoughtful engagement within the policy process and the study of climate change science and solutions. It appears to have happened some time between 1988 and 1993. These documents add to the understanding of how the company struggled for credibility on the issue of climate change in Canada while seeking to shape its own future and block policies that would curtail profits.

Other reporting and internal documents show that Exxon had an active internal conversation about climate change and was engaged in the climate policy and science discussion in the U.S. beginning in the late-1970s and continuing through the late-1980s. By 1989, several internal Exxon documents show how the company had settled on emphasizing scientific uncertainty around climate change, while acknowledging that the global scientific community and policy arena was forging ahead to tackle the problem.

Within this collection, we publish multiple climate-specific Imperial documents and studies produced from 1990 and 1991, a key period in Canada. These documents show in great detail how Imperial was developing analysis and engaging with the Canadian government, driven by the rapidly advancing public discussion on greenhouse gas emissions. For example, an Imperial/Esso document from March 1990 titled “A Discussion Paper on Potential Global Warming,” while stressing existing uncertainties in climate science, states explicitly that “Imperial wants to be part of any solution, and, in this spirit, makes specific commitments to assess the implications of potential global warming for Imperial and for Canada.”

Notable findings include:

  • Exxon is now benefiting from the reduced ice in the Arctic, shipping gas straight from ice free waters. Documents show they did extensive studies of ways to move oil and gas from the north coast of Canada, including ice breaker oil tankers and oil tanker submarines.
  • Imperial/Esso’s research and analysis of policy options circa 1990-91 stands in contrast to Exxon’s scientific research of the early-80s which focused primarily on confirming existing climate models, studying whether the rise in carbon in the atmosphere was indeed due to fossil fuels and whether carbon sequestration technology might be able to clean up emissions, or if the oceans or other natural processes might soak it all up and save the day. Exxon’s scientists also strove to make advances in solar power, electric cars, batteries and other climate solutions, anticipating that society would need these when policies to avert climate change emerged.
  • Imperial warned Canada not to go it alone in cutting emissions, emphasizing that Canadian policies would not solve a global problem and would hurt the Canadian economy. This rhetorical tactic was used by the Global Climate Coalition circa 1997 to apply pressure in the U.S. and is an argument against U.S. climate action that persists to this day.

These new revelations are of particular significance because they add to the growing body of evidence now at the center of multiple lawsuits against the company, including Massachusetts’ recently filed lawsuit against Exxon. As more climate litigation emerges, this collection of documents should serve as a resource for lawyers, reporters and researchers as further evidence of Exxon’s long internal knowledge of the climate threat, the harm fossil fuels cause and the company’s active deception of the public and its shareholders. 

Key documents & findings: 

The collection includes Imperial Annual Reports from 1961 through 2015

1970s – Imperial’s evolution of engagement with environmental and climate issues, as demonstrated in this collection, begins with high internal concern in the 1970s about the company’s public image regarding its environmental impact. Imperial’s prioritization of environmental efforts, for public relations reasons, is made clear in their 1971 report on research efforts, which states that projects like anti-pollution measures should be undertaken in order to “safeguard [Imperial’s] public image.” This illustrates both the company’s awareness of potential backlash on environmental issues and their early efforts to mitigate that backlash. Imperial also put together multiple versions of a brochure on pollution in the early-70s, presumably for public distribution, characterizing pollution as an inevitable result of human civilization. 

Key 1970s Imperial documents: 

  • 1970 Pollution is Everybody’s Business
    • CO2 is listed as a pollutant
  • 1973 Review of Environmental Protection Activities (48 pgs) 
    • “it has been obvious for some time that U.S. industry and state authorities are on an inevitable collision course with the Clean Air Act.”
    • Comments on early proceedings of international negotiations about environmental issues, including notes on IPIECA
  • Mid-1970s Oil and the Environment (Pamphlet) 
    • “with three billion people on earth, man cannot help but contaminate the environment to some extent.” 
    • “you’ll probably never breathe pure air.”
    • “The oil search must continue as long as Canadians need fuel for home heating, gasoline for automobiles, and petrochemicals for thousands of other objects of our daily lives.”
  • 1971 Imperial Oil Research Requirements
    • In a summary of a project on “Anti-Pollution Measures in Ice-Infested Waters,” the report simply states that the significance of the project to Imperial would be to “safeguard its public image.” 
    • “without the proper oil spill clean-up procedures there is always a possibility that public opinion, influenced by Environmentalists, will force a slowdown if not a complete stop of oil exploration in the Arctic. More explicitly, the document finds that “it would be most important, particularly from a Public Relations standpoint, if Imperial would instigate this type of research.”
  • 1975 ADL Study on Potential for Solar Power
    • “theoretically, up to 75% of the energy for [household and commercial] uses could be provided by solar energy. We estimate the potential market for solar climate control at over $1 billion by 1985.” 

1980s – By the 1980s, language emerges in Imperial’s internal reports commenting on the “increased media attention” on the “CO2/Greenhouse effect.” The documents from this decade communicate a continued and building anxiety about Imperial’s public reputation vis a vis environmental issues, which over the course of this decade came to include climate change. Among the documents exemplifying Imperial’s response to this growing agitation is an “Environmental Pollution Course” from the early-80s which was distributed to Imperial’s employees and contains a crash-course on topics like oil spills and eutrophication, but which also characterizes the “concern about the deterioration of our environment” as sometimes “exaggerated or untrue.” A primary topic of discussion in many of these documents is acid rain, which worried communities across North America throughout the 1970s and 1980s as lakes were acidified and buildings were damaged. The U.S. and Canada developed a landmark international agreement to manage the pollution that caused acid rain.

Interestingly, the language used in Imperial’s discussions of the “acid rain situation” – particularly language like “too many uncertainties exist,” and questioning the impact of “natural vs. man-made emissions” as seen in Imperial’s 1980-81 Review of Environmental Protection Activities – mirrors the rhetoric later used to deflect growing public outcry about climate change. 

Key 1980s Imperial documents:

  • Review of Environmental Protection Activities for 1980 – 1981 
    • “CO2/Greenhouse effect receiving increased media attention,”
    • “there is strong support for more government regulation and little report for relaxation.” 
    • About acid rain (similar language to climate denial): “Many key uncertainties exist — Natural vs. man-made emissions.”
  • 1980 Arctic, Deep Sea, and Solar Technology 
    • “renewables — such as direct solar energy, biomass, wind, and tides —  are important options in energy for the future. They also present minimal environmental problems.”
  • Circa 1980 Environmental Pollution Course
    • While there is “a great deal of concern about the deterioration of our environment,” sometimes “it is exaggerated or untrue.” 
    • “man has enormously and often recklessly modified ecosystems. He is polluting his environment with increasing quantities of waste products from his technology, as his numbers and technical know-how increase.”
    • “it is the duty…of man in every walk of life to minimize this impact. Our lives, our childrens [sic] lives, and the very life of the planet earth depend on it.”  

The relatively scarce discussion of climate change in Imperial’s research documents up through the 1980s is inconsistent with the research agenda of ExxonMobil as a whole, leading up to and during that time period. While Imperial was focused on acid rain and pollution, Exxon’s own researchers were circulating internal climate change primers describing “potentially catastrophic events” if fossil fuel use was not reduced. In the mid-1980s, however, shortly after Exxon’s director of Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory described “unanimous agreement in the scientific community” that “a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its pre-industrial revolution value” would “bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate,” Exxon cut funding for climate research from $900,000 per year to $150,000. These rapid budget cuts could offer more explanation as to why Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary also failed to prioritize more focused climate research when it was clear that such research would be relevant and necessary.

1990s- Documents from this period further illuminate the mission of those climate research programs the company did fund: “The purpose of monitoring the emerging global warming science” served as an opportunity “to provide assistance within the company to help design and implement the best mitigation and adaptive strategies …” among other factors. With “research capability in areas such as frost heave and thaw settlement” the company conceded that “The fate of sea ice in a warmed planet will largely determine how Imperial operates in the Arctic.

Selfishly, Imperial hoped to eventually build a body of climate-oriented research “to permit engineering of structures, facilities and infrastructure for exploration and development of new hydrocarbon resources.” (Imperial Oil 1990

Beginning with Imperial’s 1990 “Discussion Paper on Global Warming,” documents from this era demonstrate an extensive internal effort to understand Imperial’s own emissions, and contributions to climate change. Exxon fought off shareholder activists’s requests for such an inventory of emissions for years and years after this time. The company also clearly sought to anticipate possible legislative or regulatory interventions to curb fossil fuel emissions in Canada. The document collection from the 1990s is notable for its stark departure from the approach taken by ExxonMobil on climate change in mid-to-late-90s in the U.S.

While Imperial published studies about the possibility for fully electric cars and weighed the efficacy of different carbon taxes, Exxon in the U.S. was engaged in obstructive lobbying efforts through the Global Climate Coalition the industry front formed in 1989 to monitor United Nations efforts and oppose policies regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Initiatives like the seven part work plan undertaken by Imperial during the 1990s to research the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change reached conclusions that show in no uncertain terms that Exxon and its subsidiaries understood the toll their activities were taking on the environment, and independently predicted the level of economic regulation that would be required to meaningfully reduce emissions. 

Later in the 1990s, documents like the 1998 article by Imperial’s Chairman Robert Peterson titled “A Cleaner Canada” mark a turning point in Imperial’s rhetoric on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Peterson’s writing in this article is often in direct contrast to statements and reports previously issued by Imperial in the early and mid-1990s. It also signals a blatant shift towards the climate denial language proffered by Exxon and the many organizations it funded from the late 1990s through the late 2000s.

Meanwhile, other documents from this period show Imperial considered conducting cutting-edge research on climate tipping points that are actually taking place now. In several documents they talk about a “detailed study of the impact of global warming on CH4 trapped in the Arctic permafrost in the form of ice hydrates” noting that “At higher temperatures CH4 could be released, enhancing the greenhouse effect.”  

Of particular interest in the early 1990s is an “independent” analysis commissioned by Imperial into the potential efficacy of various taxes in Canada aimed at reducing emissions. The study found that goals “such as stabilization of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions,” would “undoubtedly require major policy interventions to reduce energy use and, in particular, fossil fuel combustion.” More specifically, the study’s examination of four types of energy and carbon tax policies at various levels of taxation found that “of all the policy measures considered, only the carbon tax of $200 per tonne of carbon or $55 per tonne of CO2 achieves approximate stabilization of Canada’s CO2 emissions.” Adjusted for inflation, CA $55 in 1991 is equivalent to roughly CA $88.50 in 2019. In USD, this carbon tax would have translated to roughly USD $41 per ton of CO2 in 1991, or $78 per ton of CO2 in 2019. By contrast, the carbon tax proposal now being backed by ExxonMobil would start at merely $40 per ton of CO2 – a measure that their own studies found to be inadequate, nearly two decades ago. 

Key 1990s Imperial Documents:

  • March, 1990: A Discussion Paper on Global Warming
    • “the possibility of global warming is a complex and potentially serious issue for the world community” 
    • “the scientific basis for the so-called greenhouse effect was well established decades ago”
    • “it is prudent to reduce carbon dioxide emissions wherever it can be accomplished at little or no cost. However…Canada would have great difficulty in achieving meaningful reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.” 
    • “actions, if they were taken alone…would have negligible impact globally, because of Canada’s small 2% share of global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion.”
    • Seven part Imperial work plan laid out 
  • 1990 Response to a Framework for Discussion on the Environment 
    • Imperial asserts their direct involvement “as a company, as well as through industry associations, in the recent consultation sessions held across Canada on the Green Plan.”
    • Discourages unilateral action, emphasizes “protect[ing] the ability of our economy to create the wealth that provides the resources to protect the environment.” 
    • highlights “a growing body of literature and practical experience, notably in the United States,” which particularly attests “to the benefits of more flexible, market-oriented approaches — such as trade-able emission rights – to achieve environmental goals.”
    • “let’s not ‘out-green’ each other.”
  • October 1990 Shareholders Environmental Report
    • “in 1971 Exxon was one of the first in the industry to adopt a position on environmental conservation. It was reaffirmed in 197_, and has since been revised to become what is now our Environmental Policy Statement. It reads: [newly revised policy to be inserted here].” 
    • “In order to assist governments on all levels in making well-informed decisions on environmental policy, Exxon representatives provide technical information and counsel on the environment, safety and health. Exxon serves as technical advisors to such bodies at the European Economic Community, the United Nations Environmental Program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and many others.” 
    • Speaks to Exxon’s research into climate change, “going back to the early 1980’s.” According to the report, “Exxon initiated research and analysis of the issue long before it became prominent with the public…. we were the first in the petroleum industry to investigate the greenhouse theory and have committed about $2 million to basic research.” 
  • 1991 DRI/McGraw Hill Study commissioned by Imperial; Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Federal Energy Policy: A Discussion of the Economic Consequences and Alternative Taxes 
    • Carbon Tax “causes the most direct impact on CO2 since the tax is in proportion to the emissions,” and was found to be the only pathway by which “the goal of flat emissions below 500 million tonnes” could be achieved. 
    • “The Third World, which has a major portion of its economy in the agricultural sector, has a much more serious economic exposure to global warming.” 
  • April, 1991: A Discussion Paper on Global Warming Response Options 
    • Significant shift from the 1990 Discussion paper –  new acknowledgment of “emerging scientific consensus” noting that “many nations, including Canada, are taking the view that the risks of waiting for further research results before taking action to limit greenhouse gas emissions are far too great.”
    • Efforts to meet goals “such as stabilization of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions,” would “undoubtedly require major policy interventions to reduce energy use and, in particular, fossil fuel combustion.” 
    • “of all the policy measures considered, only the carbon tax of $200 per tonne of carbon or $55 per tonne of CO2 achieves approximate stabilization of Canada’s CO2 emissions.” 
  • May 1991: A Preliminary Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Esso Resources Canada Ltd. Volume 1 By: L F Mannix, part 1, part 2
    • Fulfills 1st commitment in 7 part work plan laid out in 1990 discussion paper
    • “increasing atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases has been linked in the last several years with potential global warming and climatic change”
    • Demonstrates Imperial’s understanding of and research into the potential economic impact of policy-driven greenhouse gas emissions reductions. This document makes note of the same range of tax levels identified in the April 1991 document, specified as “up to 200$/tonne of Carbon or 55$/tonne of CO2.” 
  • 1991 The Application of Imperial’s Research Capabilities to Global Warming Issues
    • Imperial “has an important stake in the development of public policy in the environmental area…Imperial believes that it is in its interests to participate actively in the search for realistic and cost-effective solutions.”
    • “it is certain that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has been increasing since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and is attributable to changes in land use and the burning of fossil fuels.”
    • “The fate of sea ice in a warmed planet will largely determine how Imperial operates in the Arctic. The output from general circulation models suggests that the Beaufort Sea will be open for longer periods during the year, and year-round shipping may be possible.” 
  • 1991: The Potential for CO2 Reductions From Additional Energy Efficiency 
    • Fulfillment of item #2 in 1990 commitment to study reductions potential
    • included findings on the relative feasibility of retrofitting efforts to improve efficiency, the simplest of which were projected to “require 10 years for 100% implementation.” The report was largely cynical about the potential success of these efforts in meaningfully reducing emissions
    • “CO2 reductions from economic energy efficiency improvements” alone would be “unlikely to stabilize projected [Esso Resources Canada Limited] CO2 emissions at 1990 levels.”  
    • “displaced emissions from reduced Canadian petroleum production will be made up somewhere else in the world!”
  • 1991: Underground Disposal of Carbon Dioxide
    • Fulfills 4th commitment in 1990 doc
    • States IOL commitment to “Participating in the public policy debate concerning the issue of global climate change, given their role “as a significant Canadian producer, marketer and consumer of fossil fuels.”  
    • Doesn’t find underground CO2 disposal to be an economically viable option for Imperial alone, but does conclude that such strategies may “require further technical and cost assessment” in the event that “international strategies evolve to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions through steps that are uneconomic in their own right.” 
  • 1998: “A Cleaner Canada” by Robert Peterson
    • “One thing is clear in this debate. There is 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 – the plant world cannot live without it.”
    • “Fears about increasing environmental degradation in Canada and the United States are unfounded.”

In total, this new collection of documents brings light to the oil industry’s -and specifically Exxon’s – corporate response to and responsibility for global climate change.  We see Imperial’s: 

  • extensive research into the sources and impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, 
  • its adjustment of its own operations in response to warming, 
  • its active participation in the Canadian policy arena and 
  • its own acknowledgement in the early 1990s of the policies that would be required for meaningful emissions reductions.

These findings add damning context to ExxonMobil’s subsequent efforts to derail climate science and policy and the company’s current attempts at greenwashing by promoting weak carbon taxes and technologies that are unproven and that they know to be less than adequate in the face of current urgency to reduce emissions. These documents show yet again that the fossil fuel industry had more than enough information to act on climate change many decades ago, but repeatedly prioritized their profits over the future of the planet. 

Posted by Climate Investigations Center