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Is it Canada’s turn to hold Big Oil accountable?
Members of Canada’s parliament grilled the CEO of Suncor Energy amid growing calls for Canadian governments to hold Big Oil accountable.
Isabella Garcia is staff writer at the Center for Climate Integrity. You can follow her here.
After months of unprecedented wildfires and an oil executive’s recent pledge to double down on fossil fuels, Canadian governments are facing growing calls to take Big Oil companies to court and hold them accountable for their role in the climate crisis.
Suncor CEO in the hot seat: “Your industry knew”
In a scene reminiscent of when Big Oil CEOs were hauled before the U.S. Congress in 2021, members of Canada’s parliament last week grilled Suncor Energy CEO Richard Kruger about his company’s commitment — or lack thereof — to the clean energy transition.
Kruger, a former executive at ExxonMobil and Imperial Oil, told Suncor shareholders in August that the company was placing a “disproportionate emphasis on the longer term energy transition,” indicating that it would invest more heavily in “today's business drivers” like oil and gas.
“Suncor is committed to this effort being part of the solution by helping to decarbonize Canada’s oil and gas sector today, and being part of the energy transition tomorrow,” Kruger told the Canadian House of Commons’ Natural Resources committee during the October 16 hearing. But the company’s actions suggest otherwise.
Last year, Suncor sold its investments in wind and solar energy to Canadian utilities, claiming the sale would help the company focus more directly on the expansion of its renewable fuels. During the hearing, Kruger told members of parliament that Suncor is investing in ethanol — a so-called green biofuel that research shows is actually a bigger contributor to the climate crisis than pure gasoline — as a renewable fuel.
“The message that we got from Suncor was very clear,” MP Charlie Angus, from Ontario, said following the hearing. “They have no intention of taking responsibility for the damage that they are doing to the planet and no intention of changing course even as our planet is on fire.”
Angus pushed the oil executive to take responsibility for the industry’s role in the climate crisis, particularly after Canada’s unprecedented wildfire season burned more than 45 million acres and blanketed the country in smoke for months.
“My concern, Mr. Kruger, is that the evidence coming forward is that your industry knew that increasing production and increasing the burning of fossil fuels is destabilizing the planet,” Angus said. “I’ve had people evacuated, people who cannot go home, we’ve had people lose their properties because of this and we have the evidence that your industry knew.”
In the U.S., Suncor is facing a lawsuit from communities in Colorado that seeks to hold the company accountable for its climate deception and make it pay for costs associated with wildfires and other climate damages.
Angus, a member of Canada’s New Democratic Party, told reporters that it was time for similar action in Canada, and he called for the country’s governing Liberal Party to get off the sidelines. “There are now [dozens] of lawsuits against companies like Exxon in jurisdictions all over the United States and all over the world and yet in Canada, it's business as usual,” he said. “This is Canada’s Big Tobacco moment and our government, the Liberals, are missing in action.”
After the hearing, Liberal MP Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, said, “we as a federal government need to make sure that the oil and gas sector does its fair share when it comes to fighting climate change.”
“Sue Big Oil” campaign
At the grassroots level, calls for climate lawsuits against Big Oil companies have been building in Canada for years. The “Sue Big Oil” campaign, led by the nonprofit group West Coast Environmental Law, has been encouraging municipalities in British Columbia to file a joint lawsuit against fossil fuel companies for climate damages since 2022. Just this week, the District of Squamish became the third municipality in B.C. to sign on to the campaign.
“I have no doubt this type of case will be filed in Canada sooner or later, but the question is when,” Andrew Gage, a lawyer for the West Coast Environmental Law, told ExxonKnews.
The Sue Big Oil campaign got a major boost in 2022 when the Vancouver City Council committed $700,000 — about $1 per resident — to fund a future lawsuit against oil companies for the climate damages the city is now facing. But a newly composed council chose to not include the lawsuit money in the city’s 2023 budget.
“Any government — whether federal government, provincial government, or local government — that’s not talking about litigation is essentially saying ‘Let’s leave it to our taxpayers to pay for these costs,’” Gage said. “Not only is it fiscally irresponsible to pass those costs onto your taxpayers, it’s also bad economics in solving the climate crisis because you’re rewarding bad behavior and creating incentive for these companies to continue misleading the public and lobbying against action and promote falsehood solutions and drag their feet on anything that would actually move us away from fossil fuels.”
In addition to Squamish, towns View Royal and Gibsons have signed onto the Sue Big Oil campaign — and organizers say there is evidence that the majority of the public support their local governments joining a lawsuit against Big Oil.
Door knockers in Gibsons found that about 70% of residents supported oil companies paying their fair share of the costs to respond to climate damages, Sunshine Coast Sue Big Oil organizer Dawn Allen told ExxonKnews. That level of support was also confirmed by polling firm Stratcom Strategic Communications, which found that 69% of British Columbians supported suing Big Oil.
Allen and her fellow volunteers also found that emphasizing the climate costs taxpayers are already incurring and the financial burden climate change is placing on local budgets was a powerful persuasion tool. Allen’s team calculated what the city had already spent on climate change adaptation over the past couple years, as well as expected costs for future climate events like heat waves and flooding.
“The investment is dinky, it’s nothing, compared to the costs they know they’re facing,” Allen said. “You’re already paying a lot more right now when responding to climate change damage than you would ever be spending on this lawsuit.”
It’s a tactic that members of parliament also used in their push for holding oil companies accountable for their role in the climate crisis. MP Richard Cannings, the New Democratic Party critic for emergency preparedness and climate adaptation, noted that Canada has already spent $700 million fighting the recent wildfires — a figure that does not include any other economic impacts because of the fires, like increased healthcare costs, lost tourism dollars, or other related costs.
In an interview with ExxonKnews, Cannings urged the importance of fossil fuel companies distancing themselves from their traditional products and embracing renewable energy and other low-carbon options — a shift he doesn’t see the industry making without pressure.
“We have to face our future, and we can’t rely on companies like Suncor to do it on their own,” Cannings said. “I’m not bent on revenge or anything like that, but I think these companies should turn their thoughts to better things [like renewable energy]. Litigation might be one tool that helps focus their minds.”
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