Big Oil Malaysia

You learn some interesting things in a year.

Kuala Lumpur is a striking, bustling city of 1.5 million with a transit system of six light rail lines that span across the city. The twin Petronas Towers are the city’s signature landmark, reminiscent of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The gleaming shopping centre below houses the Petrosains Discovery Centre.

A science centre funded by an oil company –– this we had to see.

We were not disappointed. We bought our tickets, and then took the oil drop ride into the exhibit area.  Yes, that’s right. We rode in a six-seater black oil drop along a track past screens showing the beautiful forests, oceans and wildlife of Malaysia. Along the way, the narrator reminded us of the importance of protecting nature. But nature is also the source of important resources, and the images shifted to an oil rig in the ocean and bustling cities teeming with busy, happy people.

Once inside, there were sections on space exploration, prehistoric times, energy and speed; interactive displays, most of which worked; and keen young volunteers demonstrating physics, chemistry and biology. It was exciting and entertaining, and a fun time was had by the whole family.

It was the messaging running throughout the exhibits that were laughable and not so subtle examples of corporate spin.

As we entered the prehistoric section, a T-Rex greeted us while rapping in both Malaysian and English:

Hey all you guys welcome to my world / It was so many million years ago / Some people say that I made (all) the oil / But it wasn’t just me you know / Billions of creatures both big and small / And everything in between / We got together and created it all / Come on in and see what I mean.

Throughout the display panels, we could find many examples of factoids which might make you think that climate change was not all that bad.

“The air is not what it used to be…  200 million years ago, the air contained much less oxygen and far more carbon dioxide. In this atmosphere, plants grew abundantly, and extra plants meant more animals.

“The Earth’s atmosphere acts just like the glass of a greenhouse… In essence, carbon dioxide acts as the Earth’s thermostat.”

“How is carbon dioxide locked into rocks? The carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere mixes with rainfall and makes rainwater slightly acidic. This allows rainwater to dissolve carbonate minerals from the rock it falls upon. The dissolved limestone then flows off into caves, rivers, lakes or the ocean and forms calcium carbonate, a new kind of rock that essentially locks up the carbon dioxide.”

Apparently, we have been wrong to worry about carbon dioxide. It regulates Earth’s temperature. If there was more of it in the atmosphere, we could grow more plants and feed more animals, which are a form of solar energy and will continue to provide oil far off into the future. And if you are still worried, fear not, for CO2 is self-capturing, by making rainwater acidic so it can dissolve limestone which turns into calcium carbonate rock. Why, it seems even acid rain is a good thing!

Promotion and advocacy by Big Oil is nothing new. The oil industry knows it is indispensable to our economy and lifestyle, but it is also vulnerable to public opinion. It constantly needs to reinforce the belief that oil is vital and safe. Recently, The Guardian ran an article about Shell Oil using its funding for a British national science centre as a means of controlling the messaging around climate change.

In Canada, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) has produced a Raise Your Hand campaign to ask Canadians to support the companies that are extracting, transporting, and refining the oil from the Alberta Tar Sands. The message: oil companies provide jobs. And then there’s the Tim Horton’s fiasco: a number of Canadians petitioned Tim Horton’s to remove Enbridge advertising from their in-store televisions. Tim Horton’s agreed, and the knee-jerk response from right-wing Canada on Twitter was vitriolic and racist, prompting one of the targeted individuals, Faisal Moola from the David Suzuki Foundation, to file a formal hate incident report with the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

This is about as far from a sensible debate on the future of our country as you can get. There is no honest dialogue when it comes to oil and profit. The three horsemen of greed, ideology and hatred have won the day.

This story should end here, but it doesn’t.

Five entertaining hours and many exhibits later, we left via our oil drop which took us past a montage of faces while a reassuring voice told us that Malaysia’s greatest resource is its people. Outside, we were back in a bustling city full of life, diversity and vitality. One other display sign from the centre came to mind: “Behind every modern nation lies a fully developed petroleum industry.”

There’s a key difference between Malaysia’s relationship with oil and Canada’s. Petronas is a government-owned company and its revenues are invested back into the country. Founded in 1975, its corporate dividends account for 45 percent of the government’s budget and Petronas is ranked as the 69th largest company in the world in the 2014 Fortune 500 (Royal Dutch Shell is #2, behind Wal-Mart).

Like Malaysia, Canada also created a national energy company in 1975, Petro-Canada, but the federal government began privatizing the company in 1990, and it was eventually sold to Suncor in 2009. Malaysia decided its oil could only be developed by the national government and has reaped the benefits, while Canada decided to rely on royalties and taxation.

In Canada, resources are provincially owned, and Alberta has the lion’s share of oil. The average royalty rate in Alberta since 2009 is 11 percent. Compare that with royalty rates of 70 percent in Norway, which had a $46-billion (US) surplus in 2013 and has a public benefits fund which now stands at $884-billion.

So Canada tried both a national oil company and royalties, but in both cases failed to transform its oil resources into a major public fund. Malaysia and Norway have used their oil to invest in their futures, while Canada has sold ours for a song. And the saddest part of all is that we have yet to learn the lesson from the Petrosains Centre (with one slight addition in italics): “Behind every modern nation lies the revenue from a fully developed petroleum industry.”

Carbon pricing is the latest, and possibly last, opportunity to link oil consumption with a major public benefits fund. Our one last chance to raise the funds necessary to invest in a sustainable future for Canada and, true to form, we are letting it slide away by linking revenue to tax cuts in BC and opting for cap-and-trade in Ontario.

We may have been laughing at the Petrosains exhibit, but truly, the laughs are on us.