1991 Imperial Oil Paper: The Application of Imperial’s Research Capabilities to Global Warming Issues

This April 1991 document from Imperial Oil Limited (IOL), the Canadian subsidiary of Exxon, is a report on “The Application of Imperial’s Research Capabilities to Global Warming Issues.” This document is part of the ClimateFiles Imperial Oil document set, gleaned by DeSmog researchers from the Glenbow Imperial Oil Archive Collection.

As part of a series of background papers researched and written by IOL “in support of a more comprehensive work on Global Warming,” this document “provides a summary of findings on the status of climate change science, possible research opportunities for Imperial and other activities the company can support.” While affirming that “there is little controversy over the existence of a greenhouse effect,” in this document Imperial continues a narrative of “great scientific uncertainty” concerning the “extrapolation of results from models used to predict climate change.” 

In a section titled “Global Climate Change — The Uncertainties,” Imperial’s messaging of scientific doubt is largely focused on “uncertainty on the timing of the expected climate change” in current models. “(Models) are not yet reliable guides to the timing, magnitude or regional incidence of future climate change, making it difficult to develop meaningful assessments of the impacts of climate change or the suitability of certain policy options to limit climate change.”

Despite these uncertainties around “timing,” Imperial expresses clearly that “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.” This statement demonstrates a departure from the language and research being promoted by Exxon in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, during which time Exxon and other fossil fuel companies created the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) in order to oppose mandatory reductions in carbon emissions by obscuring the scientific consensus on the relationship between fossil fuels and the climate. 

In this document, Imperial goes on to announce their funding to the “university grant system” “to assess opportunities to selectively support climate change research,” working towards an objective of “to be able to knowledgeably contribute to government/industry panels.” 

Furthermore, Imperial acknowledges in this document the ways in which future climate change, as a result of fossil fuel emissions, will impact their own business practices: “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.” 

This document provides important perspective into the diversity of positions on climate change being taken by the fossil fuel industry during the early 1990s, even within Exxon’s own conglomerate. 

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