Podcast: How American Climate Denial Fueled Canada's Tar Sands, with Geoff Dembicki
Thank you for being a paid subscriber! This week we talked to investigative journalist Geoff Dembicki, whose name you might recognize from some of the great coverage he's done for Vice. Geoff's new book The Petroleum Papers is out now, all about the fascinating history of climate denial in Canada, and how denial built a bridge between the U.S. and Canadian fossil fuel industries.
Here's your ad-free episode (transcript is below as well).
[00:00:00] Geoff Dembicki: My name is Geoff Dembicki and I am an investigative climate change journalist living in New York right now, but I'm originally from Canada and specifically the province of Alberta, which is home to the Canadian Tar Sands. And I have a new book out now called The Petroleum Papers: Inside the Far Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change.
[00:00:25] Amy: What prompted you to think, oh, this might be a book? What did you start to dig into and what did you find?
[00:00:32] Geoff Dembicki: So I was really fascinated a few years ago reading all the reporting that came out around what Exxon knew about climate change and how Exxon had researched it internally and then had hid the findings from the public, distorted the findings, and essentially created this like fucked up situation with climate change that we're now in where we've wasted all this time debating whether it's even real.
And so most of the reporting concerned what was happening in the U.S. But you know, being from Canada and Alberta, I knew that Exxon was heavily involved in the Canadian tar sands and so were a bunch of other major oil companies. And so I wondered, you know, is, is there anything to this climate denial story that's happened north of the border? And in a lot of ways the border doesn't even really matter because the vast majority of all of this tar sands oil is flowing into the U.S. So that was sort of the starting point, or the question I asked myself when I started researching this book.
[00:01:46] Amy: That's so interesting and I don't wanna have you spoil the book for people, but, to the extent that you can, can you share a little bit about what you found on that front?
[00:01:58] Geoff Dembicki: So I think this story really begins in 1959 and that's when there was this hundredth birthday celebration for the oil and gas industry at Columbia University in New York. So it was, it was a big deal. All these oil and gas executives were there. There were keynote speeches and everything. And one of the people, this was reported in a story in The Guardian. One of the people who spoke there was Edward Teller who was one of the, the inventors of the atomic bomb.
And so Ed Edward Teller goes up in front of the room of executives. They're all, you know, giddy about all the money they're gonna make from oil and gas over the next century. And Edward Teller is like, you know, I've been looking into this new global threat that might even be a bigger deal for the world than nuclear war. And it's, it's this thing called the Greenhouse gas Effect. And then Edward Teller leads the room through sort of the basics of how global warming happens. He's like, when you pull oil and gas from the ground, you burn, it releases emissions into the atmosphere. This warms the climate. And then he says, which I found quite shocking, you know, in 1959 "this could potentially melt the polar ice caps, flood a bunch of the world's coastal cities and New York, like where we're having this birthday party could one day be underwater."
And I was like, holy shit. That on its own is just such an amazing scene to me. But one of the executives, he's literally sitting next to Edward Teller on stage and listening to him is this guy Robert Dunlop. And Robert Dunlop is the head of this US company called Sun Oil. And I thought that was quite interesting because I knew Sun Oil has a big history in Canada, and so I looked deeper into it, and sure enough, four years after Robert Dunlop heard that climate change warning from Edward Teller, Robert Dunlop was up in Northern Alberta helping set up one of the first commercial tar sands operations ever. And that basically set the entire industry in motion. And it was expected at the time that the tar sands would hold oil rivaling what was in Texas, Saudi Arabia, just an absolutely massive deposit of oil.
[00:04:37] Amy: Wow. Could you talk a little bit about the cross-pollination of climate denialism between the US and Canada? I love this thing that you said just a couple minutes ago about how the border, well, it's made up, right? But even politically and ideologically when it comes to this stuff, I think it just seems like it's all kind of part of the same thing. So I'm just curious about what you saw in terms of these ideas spreading on both sides through folks who are working in the industry and, and probably crossing that border all the time.
[00:05:14] Geoff Dembicki: Well, I'll keep it in the sixties for the moment because I think that's kind of where the answer to your question begins. And you know, one of the big takeaways for me in doing this book is that Canadian oil is always aligned with some of the most reactionary political forces in the United States. And so, for example you know, after Robert Dunlow had been warned about climate change, by Edward Teller.
There he is up developing this massive oil industry and, and another person who played a big role in that and who was also part of Sun Oil was this guy Howard Pugh. And Howard Pugh is, is a really fascinating figure because in some ways he's sort of like a, a Koch brothers style, oil and gas person. Like he, he was like fervently anti communist.
He thought, you know, the Soviets were trying to spread their godless ideology across the planet. Howard Pugh was also deeply, deeply religious, and he was very much in support of tapping this massive oil industry in Canada because, He believed that having this giant source of oil that could supply the US would be a way to, to fight against Soviet control of the world.
It would make America strong and, and self-sufficient. And so in, in these very early days of the tar sands being set up in Canada, you kind of. This fusion of reactionary Christianity, this very like libertarian anti-government worldview of Howard Pugh. And then you had legitimate climate warnings ignored by the people who were doing it.
And I, I think this is like the beginning of the formula that's come to define all climate denial and reactionary climate politics over the past few decades
[00:07:20] Amy: Yeah. It's amazing how much that whole ideology of connecting national identity with the fossil fuel industry and then those on one side and like communism on the other, just comes up again and again and again.
[00:07:38] Geoff Dembicki: All throughout
[00:07:43] Amy: Did you find anything in your research that you were particularly surprised to find?
[00:07:50] Geoff Dembicki: So, a really surprising thing that I found, or at least the thing that sort of like shocked me the most had to do with an Exxon company in Canada called Imperial Oil.
And so after, after Sun Oil set up their first tar sands operation, the second major tar sands operation was set up by Imperial, which is, it's basically, it's, it's like Exxon's Canadian arm. And so Imperial was doing all this research about climate change, like over the, the seventies and eighties, and that that was part of like the broader interest that Exxon had.
In the issue, but in, in the early 1990s, Imperial Oil, you know, they, they felt like they had figured out what climate change is about and they started to look into, if as a society we wanted to fix this thing, like what? Would we do? And so in the early nineties, Imperial Oil, they hired this economics like consultancy and, and they ran various models of climate change solutions.
And this is, this is like very early days for anyone talking about climate change. Like period. Imperial was already studying solutions. , it determined that if, if there was a national tax on all of the carbon omitted across the Canadian economy mm-hmm. , this could result in approximate stabilization of CO2 emissions.
And so Imperial was like this, this is how you stop emissions. Like the thing we need to do. And then Imperial calculated what the impact to the economy would be. And it wasn't bad at all. They, they figured there would be, you know, a hit at first a, a sub polluting industry shut down. But that would, that would be mostly offset by all of the revenues that governments would have from taxing carbon that governments could then use to fund a massive green stimulus.
But Imperial looked specifically at how a policy like this would hurt its tar sands operations, and it determined that it would be horrible for the company. It would cost them maybe like over 900 million or something. And so in, in a document from a 1993 Imperial Oil, Described a list of talking points that executives at the company and at Exxon should use to sort of like spin this research for people in media and government.
And they, they told people to, you know, stress the huge economic risks of taking action on climate change, which they knew, you know, were exaggerated. It said to portray climate solutions as having uncertain environmental benefits and once again, like they, they knew that that wasn't accurate. These solutions could stop climate change. And so that, that just blew my mind because I was like, at, at such an early date, like I, I was just like five or six years old, they had all the knowledge in place to, to stop this climate emergency. Like we, we could have done it back then. And they purposefully distorted that and made sure it never happened
[00:11:12] Amy: Yeah. Can you talk about this 1991 conference where the Kochs kind of zeroed in on, 'oh, this, this could be a real problem , let's figure out our strategy here? I know I have like seen bits and bobs about this over, over the years, but I, I feel like you get into more depth on it in the book, so yeah. I'd love to hear you talk about the Cato 1991 conference.
[00:11:39] Geoff Dembicki: Well, this kind of gets into what I was saying about Canadian oil always being aligned with the most reactionary forces Yeah. In the us And so in my research for this book, I was reading Kochland by Christopher Leonard.
[00:11:52] Amy: Oh, yeah. So good. Yeah. He mentions it in there, that's right
[00:11:56] Geoff Dembicki: And there's some really amazing sections in that book where he's talking about the importance of this oil and gas refinery in Minnesota to the Koch Empire. And basically like after Charles and David Koch inherited their business empire from their father, one, one of the first like hugely successful decisions they made was to take control of this Pine Bend refinery in Minnesota, which, which processes like low quality oil from Canada and then sold it at a premium into the US Midwest.
And this for years was considered like the cash cow of Koch Industries and was really pivotal in allowing the company to become like this industrial behemoth that it is today. And Pine Bend now is one of the biggest refiners of Canadian tar sands oil in the United States. And so as this oil from Canada is like funding the Koch Empire, they have all this money and they decide to invest it in like the most reactionary libertarian politics. And so they set up the Cato Institute and it's this think tank basically arguing that the government should barely exist. Then, in 1991 James Hanson has testified to Congress about climate change. It's on the public radar. All these people are talking about it and Cato's like, oh shit.
Like, we need, we need a position on climate change. We need to do something about this. And so they hold this conference in Washington, DC and from what I can tell, it's, it's one of the first conferences devoted specifically to climate change denial. And the people, the people at this thing, they know that what they're doing is a little bit weird.
I read through the brochure of the conference and the language is a little bit defensive in it. It's sort of: "you may be wondering why U.S. Conservatives are trying to cast doubt on, on climate change. Isn't this something we should all be taking care of?" I think what Cato was responding to is that in the early days, climate change wasn't like a super polarized hyperpartisan issue . And in fact, like Republicans had done like big legislation on the environment, like the acid rain stuff. Canada conservative governments had done, you know, huge environmental stuff and it, it was just seen as like common sense. It appealed to conservatives. It was really good for the economy.
[00:14:30] Amy: Right, George Bush Senior, even had stump speeches about it. He said something like, the Greenhouse Effect hasn't met the White House effect, we're gonna get on top of this .
[00:14:40] Geoff Dembicki: It's crazy to look back on now. But this Cato Institute conference, you know, like backed by Koch Industries, which had very real material interests at stake set out to destroy consensus and, and they thought that one way they could do this was by undermining the science about climate change. And so one of the people at the conference was this guy Patrick Michaels . He wasn't a climate scientist, but he had been involved in these early test campaigns in several US communities to see if they could successfully push a message undermining climate science.
Rush Limbaugh was part of that too. And they found in these early experimental campaigns, a large majority of Americans were really worried about climate change. But if you started poking holes in the science and saying, you know, we don't actually know what this is really about, then concern just dropped off a cliff and they were like, holy shit, we have the formula, let's take this national. And so Patrick Michaels and some of these other people were at that early conference in Washington and I think this sort of laid the groundwork.
[00:15:53] Amy: Yeah. Wow. Okay, so when I scheduled to have you on, I was like, oh man, I've gotta have him talk about the guy who was an undercover operative trying to sleep with activists in the Climate movement. this is the craziest story I've read in a while. So yeah, this is a story that you did for Vice, the headline is: "How a married undercover cop having sex with activists killed a climate movement. " What the hell is this story, Geoff?
Geoff Dembicki: Well, I mean, I think this is like related in a bigger picture sense to what the book is about, which is like how embedded with fossil fuels national governments have become, and like the lengths they're willing to go to, to undermine anyone who who advocates for, for something different.
And, you know, I, like, I didn't discover or break this story. This was a big thing over in the UK and Europe and essentially this like unit within the, the UK police sent this married cop Mark Kennedy undercover in a radical climate change group for like seven years.
[00:17:10] Amy: Was this just like an " oh, these might be domestic terrorists like Earth Liberation Front" type of of thing?
[00:17:18] Geoff Dembicki: Yeah, and it was part of a broader campaign. They were infiltrating all sorts of leftist groups across the UK, like animal rights, some socialists, you know, and, and any, anything that was like left of, of what the government considered respectable politics.
And so this guy Mark Kennedy, he goes and infiltrates this small group and they were just like meeting in this little center in Nottingham in the UK and they had no idea that, you know, the government would even really have an interest in infiltrating them or seeing them as all that important. And Mark Kennedy, you know, he had this story that he was like a professional climber. And then like a bigger backstory that he was a former cocaine runner from Pakistan who was trying to atone for his criminal past. And one of the techniques this cop used to gain the trust of the movement and climate groups was to sleep with female activists and form relationships with them.
And so when the cop was finally outed and this became, you know, a massive national scandal because these were not consensual relationships in any way. The women were like, wow, we just thought we were dating this like, cool activist guy. We had no idea he was giving information about us back to his superiors and the British state in order to undermine the climate movement. Like, what the fuck? So fucked up. We could spend hours going into all of the insane details of this story, but it, you know, the repercussions of this are still ongoing. There is this big legal battle led by several of the women who were deceived by Mark Kennedy and they just won a big legal victory earlier this year.
It just goes to show how entrenched these fossil fuel industries are in our politics that you could justify this moral insanity in order to protect this industry that's destroying the planet. I feel like the people in power have just slowly become like more and more detached from reality and these are the lengths they're willing to go to.
[00:19:41] Amy: That makes me wonder, too, if you could talk a little bit about anything you found with respect to efforts in Canada to either combat activism or prevent it from happening in the first place. I know for for sure that Edelman, I think it was working for Imperial Oil, was doing some interesting things up there around fake activist groups against environmental policies. So I'm curious if you found stuff like that too, that kind of played into all of this.
[00:20:11] Geoff Dembicki: Yeah. Well, the, the main tactic to discredit environmental groups in Canada is to claim that they're all part of this huge US led conspiracy to shut down the tar sands in order to benefit these like wealthy elites in New York. It's an insane conspiracy, but that's been like the dominant mode of attack from the fossil fuel industry and the politicians aligned with it for like a, a decade or more. And it got to the point even where, like the tar sands province of Alberta spent like $2 million on a government led inquiry into major environmental groups to see how much US funding they've received over the years and, and whether they're acting on behalf of Foreign interests in some way. And essentially this just mimics the climate denial tactic in so many ways; we can't win against these environmental groups on the merit of our arguments because they're right. If we keep digging all of this oil and gas out of the ground, it's, it's just gonna totally screw us over in terms of climate change and it's also a really precarious industry. It's boom and bust. The province's finances are always all over the place. So instead, you know, we're gonna spread this conspiracy theory and just plant doubt about the intentions of these groups.
And so, in fact, the government inquiry in Alberta found no evidence of wrongdoing, but it was this years long thing. And now anytime someone hears the name of one of these environmental groups, they might think, Hmm, are they, are they foreign funded? Are there interests behind this? I'm not so sure. It's the same thing they did with climate science. The deniers never won the argument. But now there's always this element of doubt that goes along with any discussion of climate change. And it's just like throwing sand into the gears of climate action.
It just mucks everything up and slows everything down.
[00:22:23] Amy: That's so interesting. And, it's true that just getting people to even just think twice about, oh, I don't know, I've heard this group is maybe just pushing a US agenda is enough to get people to kind of tune out or even shift their thinking on things. So bringing us up to the present, did you find that a lot of these tactics that were used from the sixties all the way through to the nineties up to now, are, the same tactics that are being used or the same messages that we're seeing today? Or have things shifted?
[00:23:02] Geoff Dembicki: I think at a big picture level, it's the same messages and many of the same players. And I was, I was really struck by this when I was watching that big oil disinformation hearing about a year ago. Where Congress hauled in a bunch of executives from Exxon and Chevron and other oil and gas companies, and was asking them about their role in lying about climate science.
And so they, this is in the book, but I was, I was watching that and I, I saw that the Republicans called this witness, this guy Neil Crabtree. An oil and gas worker who was supposed to build the Keystone Excel tar Sands pipeline from Canada down to Texas. And so every time the Republicans had a chance to speak, they would bring up this witness and they would be like, look at what Biden did. Biden took this poor man's job away. How dare he do that? And I was like, this isn't related at all to what the conference is talking about, why do they keep referencing this dude? And then I just got curious and I started looking it up and it turns out. Neil Crabtree had been enlisted by this group, Americans for Tax Reform to take part in this campaign called Biden Killed My Job, like hashtag . And then I was like, oh shit. Americans for tax reform. Their name is on the original climate denial playbook document back in the nineties, along with Exxon and all of them. And this is so amazing on some level. These companies are being hauled in to account to Congress about their role in spreading denial. And then the same right wing group that helped them write that playbook is now running their defense in the middle of the hearing and also defending oil from Canada. The history, just, it never stopped.
[00:24:56] Amy: Yeah. No. It's wild. That was funny too because there was one point in that hearing where they were asked, and did President Biden ever call you to apologize for taking your job? It was that kind of a question. And even he was like, well, I mean, I wouldn't expect the president of the United States to call me, you know? . There was another point too, where they were asking and "how long were you out of work?" And he was like, well, I mean, I found another job a week later."
[00:25:28] Geoff Dembicki: Oh, no! Well, and then, to just bring it all even further into the present, you know that that was around the same time the Biden administration was trying to do the Build Back Better Act. And of course, like Joe Manchin was one of the biggest obstacles to making that happen. But all the same oil and gas players who've always opposed climate action were like, okay, Joe Mansion is our tool now that we can use to oppose this thing. And so a few months after Build Back Better was basically abandoned and it's not gonna happen, the Alberta government flew Joe Manchin up to the tar sands.
[00:26:07] Amy: Oh my God.
[00:26:07] Geoff Dembicki: Yeah. Gave him a tour and was like, this is our friend in Washington. And Joe Manchin was like, I love Canadian oil. And then afterwards Joe Manchin goes back and invites the premier of Alberta to testify in front of Congress about why this oil from Canada is so important and, and yet again, it's this thing that's been continuing since the 1960s. The most reactionary political forces always just see an interest in this huge oil reserve in Canada
[00:26:43] Amy: Wow. It's kind of depressing. I was saying this the other day to someone, you know, they really haven't come up with a new tactic in decades because they haven't had to. It's still working.
[00:26:56] Geoff Dembicki: Yeah. Wow.