Books

The Petroleum Papers explores oil & gas industry's role in the climate crisis — read an excerpt now

The book is a finalist for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The winner will be announced on Nov. 2, 2022.

The book is a finalist for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

The Petroleum Papers is a nonfiction book by Geoff Dembicki. (Greystone Books, Submitted by the Writers' Trust of Canada)

In The Petroleum Papers, climate journalist Geoff Dembicki looks at the history of the petroleum industry and the oil sands in Alberta. Oil executives were told in 1959 that burning fossil fuels will cause global warming, and yet the industry grew substantially in the decades that followed. The Petroleum Papers looks at why the biggest oil companies in the world continue to grow, and shares the story of the people who are fighting back.

It is one of five books shortlisted for the 2022 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The $60,000 award recognizes the best nonfiction book published in Canada. The winner will be announced on Nov. 2, 2022.

"On the surface, this book can seem very depressing and demoralizing. But it gave me a weird sense of hope. For so long we've had this story that we've been telling about climate change, which is that its a result of billions of people's individual actions... and that makes us all equally responsible. But looking at 100s of pages of documents and realizing the extent to which people have been lied to about climate change made me realize that at certain key moments a small handful of companies and executives sabotaged solutions," Dembicki said in an interview with CBC Radio's On the Coast.

"The solution isn't necessarily to change the behaviours of 7 billion people around the planet. It's to begin looking at the huge role some of these companies have played in making sure that the solutions we need haven't happened."

Dembicki is a climate change reporter from Alberta who now lives in New York. He is also the author of the nonfiction work Are We Screwed?, which won the 2018 Green Prize for Sustainable Literature. 

You can read an excerpt from The Petroleum Papers below.


What if the conspirators within the oil sands industry had not been so successful in blocking action to stop the climate emergency? What if at various points over the past six decades, leading oil companies had reckoned with their roles in bringing about the destabilization of our atmosphere and had shared their science and powerful voices with those trying to head it off? What if they had used their political influence to push governments in the United States and Canada to synchronize each country's carbon-reducing efforts, rather than encouraging politicians to undercut each other at every possible moment? 

What if the conspirators within the oil sands industry had not been so successful in blocking action to stop the climate emergency?

Such thoughts filled my mind as I approached the end of researching and writing this book. And so, in late 2021, I got in touch with Joanna Sustento over Zoom wanting to ask a delicate question. It had been nearly four years since we'd first met in Tacloban City. That initial conversation had taken place in a coffee shop that was underwater during Typhoon Haiyan. I'd been nervous to ask Sustento how she rebuilt her life after having everything she considered most important destroyed by climate change. Over large mugs of coffee, she answered my questions about the worst moments of her life with short, devastating anecdotes, a low-key fury, and the occasional flash of wry humour. Now, through our computer screens, I picked up the conversation: If oil and gas producers hadn't spent decades spreading doubt and denial about climate change, I asked, is it possible that the storm that killed her family never would have happened? "Well yeah," she replied. "I would like to think so."

LISTEN | Geoff Dembicki talks about the oil and gas industry's role in the climate crisis:

In 1959 politicians and fossil fuel industry business people were informed of the dangers of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We speak with author and Tyee reporter Geoff Dembicki on his new book The Petroleum Papers which exposes the culpability of the industry in climate change.

The climate emergency long predicted within the secret research departments of oil companies has finally arrived. In 2021 alone, more than 2.6 million acres of California went up in flames, an unprecedented cold snap in Texas knocked out electricity for millions of people, and the Canadian town of Lytton, B.C., burned to the ground during a record heat wave only to be bombarded several months later by torrential rains that caused $450 million worth of  damage across the region. But the impacts didn't have to be this painful and intense. When Bill McKibben wrote his landmark book about global warming, The End of Nature, published in 1989, he wasn't hopeful that we'd be able to stop climate change completely. However, he told me recently, "It did not occur to me that we would perform as badly as we performed. I did not know that governments would essentially do nothing for 30 years."

Wind whips embers from a hotspot during a wildfire in Castaic, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu) (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

There's a familiar list of reasons that experts cite for why the world allowed greenhouse gas emissions to keep rising so long, even though scientists like James Hansen were making blatantly clear the planetary chaos those emissions were locking in. We in the West are too addicted to our polluting lifestyles. China and India needed fossil fuels to develop. The economic impacts of shifting to greener forms of energy were too damaging. Our self-serving human nature makes the collective global action required of us impossible. Through his decades of writing and activism on climate change, McKibben came to a much simpler explanation: oil and gas producers lied to protect their profits. They lied about the science being uncertain. They lied about cleaner industries destroying the economy. They lied about climate change being something for which we are all equally responsible. 

Another path forward was possible. Imagine, McKibben said, that just hours after Hansen gave his congressional testimony in 1988 waking up the American public to the dangers of global warming, the CEO of Exxon went on CBS Evening News and said, "'Our scientists are telling us pretty much the same thing. We've got a real problem and we've got to get to work.'" McKibben said, "If that happens, then we avoid this 30-year, completely pointless debate about whether global warming is real." 


Excerpted and adapted with permission from the publisher from the book The Petroleum Papers by Geoff Dembicki and published by Greystone Books.

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