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Geoff Dembicki on How He Wrote a Big Oil Blockbuster

‘The Petroleum Papers’ is getting raves while inspiring rage. Use that anger for fuel, says the author. A Tyee interview.

David Beers 15 Sep

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

Renowned climate writer and activist Bill McKibben calls it “a truly needed compendium of Big Oil’s endless lies.”

The Tyee’s Andrew Nikiforuk, author of several books on fossil fuel extraction and dependency, says, “Read this book on the power of lies and scream.”

They strike a tone shared by others heaping praise on Geoff Dembicki’s book The Petroleum Papers, set for release Sept. 20. Kirkus Media has listed it among its top anticipated books for the fall season and the Toronto Star placed the work on its own similar list.

For Dembicki, a widely published climate journalist who’s written for The Tyee for 15 years, this is book number two. His previous effort, Are We Screwed?, which chronicled the millennial’s journey to meet people on the frontlines of trying to avert the climate disaster, received the 2018 Green Prize for Sustainable Literature.

This followup reads more like a prosecutorial brief, as its full title conveys: The Petroleum Papers: Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change, published by Greystone Books in collaboration with the David Suzuki Institute.

Dembicki pored over a mountain of historical documents and interviewed key players to expose many times when the oil industry and its political allies sowed disinformation about the rising threat of climate catastrophe. He names names and connects dots from Fort McMurray to Washington, D.C. No wonder McKibben, Nikiforuk and others sound pissed off even as they tout the book. We could have averted disaster decades ago and the very people pushing us to the precipice knew full well.

Dembicki will be in town for a Tyee launch party for The Petroleum Papers, a free event open to all. If you'd like to attend, we ask that you register.

Today, an interview with the author, followed tomorrow by an excerpted preview of the book. Here’s our conversation.

The Tyee: The title of your book references a huge collection of confidential oil industry archives. What's contained in these documents and how did you get access to them?

Geoff Dembicki: So for the last few decades major oil companies have been secretly researching climate change and then writing up reports about their findings. Pretty much all the major firms with operations in the oilsands — including Suncor, Shell, BP and the Exxon-owned Imperial Oil — learned internally that their products were making climate change worse and potentially leading to catastrophic impacts around the world. They also produced reports about how to communicate this science to the public. By the early 1990s, the strategy most companies decided on was lying about the science, trying to convince the public it isn’t real.

Investigative research groups like DeSmog got access to huge amounts of these documents and posted them online in vast databases. So the documents were publicly available, but no journalist had really gone in and written a book telling the explosive story contained in all those documents. Starting a few years ago, that’s what I decided to do.

That sounds like a ton of work. Give me a sense of how you went about it, and maybe something you dug up that amazed you.

There’s a site called Climate Files run by a group called the Climate Investigations Center that has a master collection of documents sorted by year and going back to 1953. I began the process of reading every single document on the site. Through that process I found stuff that even the disinformation experts didn’t really know about.

To the right, a black and white photo of the author, a millennial with short fair hair, looking somber. To the left is the image of the book cover for 'The Petroleum Papers' which features an hourglass with oil instead of sand.
‘I felt guilty about my personal contribution to the climate crisis for a long time, burning gasoline in a car when I drove, the energy I burned to heat my apartment,’ says author Geoff Dembicki. ‘But reading these documents turned that guilt to anger.’ Photo of Geoff Dembicki by Jody Rogac.

The document that really blew my mind was a short summary of talking points about climate solutions created by Imperial Oil in 1993. Exxon had been internally studying climate solutions and learned that a national carbon price in the early 1990s could effectively stabilize the crisis without hurting the economy. It would be bad for profits though, so Imperial urged executives to essentially portray the research in the worst possible light to media and policy-makers, saying that fixing climate change was a reckless strategy that would destroy the economy.

Imperial could have helped stop this emergency three decades ago, but chose not to.

You focus on fighters for climate truth, as well. A central character in your book is Joanna Sustento, a young Filipino woman who lost most of her family in Typhoon Haiyan. How did you originally learn about her story and meet her?

I was in the Philippines several years to attend the opening of a human rights investigation into whether several dozen of the worst polluters in the world, including oilsands companies, were guilty of human rights abuses for their role in climate change. When I was there some people with the investigation put me in touch with Joanna, who’d really experienced about the most horrific impacts of climate change imaginable.

We met in a coffee shop in Tacloban City that had been underwater at one point during the typhoon in 2013. She told me it was unconscionable to her that oil companies knew about the climate crisis and instead of fixing it, spread lies to the public.

Vancouver is now taking steps towards suing big oil companies for lying about climate change. What sort of evidence will they have to draw from if that lawsuit goes forward?

Basically many of the documents cited in my book. There’s evidence that Sun Oil, the U.S. firm that later became the major oilsands producer Suncor, knew about climate change starting back in the 1950s but instead tapped the third biggest oil reserves on the planet. Cities like Vancouver now face potentially $50 million in annual climate impacts because of decisions like that.

You are an Alberta kid who started as an intern at The Tyee right out of Carleton’s journalism program in 2008. And you’ve been a regular contributor to our pages ever since. But now you live in Brooklyn and also write for Vice and the Guardian. Why are you in New York and what’s that like?

As a writer I’ve always been fascinated with New York and after my partner Kara and I got renovicted from our apartment in East Vancouver in 2019, we checked out rents in Brooklyn and they actually weren’t so much crazier than Vancouver rents. I also wanted to be here to cover the dozens of lawsuits against Big Oil moving forward in U.S. courts, as well as the leadup to the 2020 presidential election.

The West Coast will always feel like home to me, but New York is fun and exciting. I’ve met a lot of other writers and editors and spent much time exploring the city on my bike. I still regularly read The Tyee and the whole network of awesome climate and environment-focused writers in B.C., including Arno Kopecky, Sean Holman, James MacKinnon, Francesca Fionda, Michelle Gamage — really there’s too many to name.

Some who read your book get really angry at how much effort has been invested in willfully keeping people ignorant about the threat of climate change, stalling any effective response. Did you write the book to enrage people? And if so, what would you hope they do with their anger?

Especially because I grew up in Alberta, I felt guilty about my personal contribution to the climate crisis for a long time, burning gasoline in a car when I drove, the energy I burned to heat my apartment. But reading these documents turned that guilt to anger. I saw all the moments we could have gotten the crisis under control, deliberately sabotaged to protect profits for a handful of companies.

People should use their anger to join some kind of social movement that can hold these companies accountable. I discuss some of those efforts in the book.

The Petroleum Papers is published by Greystone/DSI, a collaboration between two Vancouver institutions, Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Institute. What has it been like working with them?

It’s been fantastic. They were supportive from day one of this project and basically told me to go out there and write the best book possible.

David Suzuki, a scientist and also an environmental advocate, has long been a prominent figure warning of the climate crisis. Were you granted editorial freedom in crafting your book?

I had complete editorial freedom, which is a little scary, because I worried I would write something that wouldn’t do justice to the climate crisis and all the shocking revelations I learned while going through the documents. That said, the central takeaways in this book don’t come at all from environmentalists, they’re derived from materials produced secretly by oil companies.

So there’s a big party in Vancouver celebrating the launch of your book on Sept. 20 and we’re inviting everyone who cares about the planet. It’s free of charge, and I know all of us in the Tyee community are eager to see you in person. What does it feel like to be coming “home” to British Columbia at this point in your creative life?

When I walk down Commercial Drive it feels like I’ve never left. It feels great to be seeing so many friends and family that encouraged me during different moments of my career and there’s no place I’d rather launch this book than Vancouver.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Books, Media, Environment

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