The Early Years

In the early years of the refinery, many small companies competed to turn the oil of the region into marketable products. Other oil patches, in Pennsylvania and Texas, were also being rapidly developed. Companies would close and buy each other in a frenzy over gaining control of this emerging industry. The Land and equipment that made up Dominion Oil Refinery rapidly swapped ownership as companies went out of business and merged. The refinery was first purchased by Alpha Oil, Gas and Mining Company in 1877, then sold to Sarnia Oil Company in 1888, then sold to the Canadian Oil Company until it was bought by the Bushnell Company in 1897. 

The Bushnell Company bought all the other refineries in Sarnia and closed most of them, consolidating into one large refinery, a rebuilding of the original Dominion Oil Refinery. Bushnell Refinery is thus often identified as the key owner of this important refinery, commemorated, for example, on the 1983 Sarnia town dollar coin. 

Bushnell refinery commemorative dollar coin issued by the city of Sarnia in 1983.

The Bushnell Company, in turn was acting as the local representative of the U.S. company, Standard Oil, owned by the John D. Rockefeller. Buying up refineries and oil wells around the world, Standard Oil quickly became the world’s largest oil company. Sarnia was just one of its many sites of extraction. Standard Oil owned so many refineries that it was considered a monopoly. Standard Oil is now known as ExxonMobil. From 1897 onwards, whatever the name of the Canadian company in the refinery, its majority owner would be a ExxonMobil, one of the world’s oldest and biggest multinational oil companies. 

1904 image of Standard Oil as a monstrous octopus becoming a monopoly over the oil industry. Image created by Udo Keppler, and published in Puck, v. 56, no. 1436 (1904 Sept. 7). Sept. 7. Source: Library of Congress.

Just as Standard Oil bought up all of the refineries of Sarnia, the new colonial nation of Canada established the Indian Act of 1876, and by 1880 a permit system was put in places that restricted the rights of Indigenous people to farm or purchase food. By 1884, residential school became mandatory. In 1885 the pass system was in place, restricting people’s movement. 

The creation of the Canadian colonial system of restrictive laws, culture destruction, and reserves “cleared” the land for the establishment of the area as Canada’s hub of industrial refining.

Esso and Canadian Branding

Majority owned by what was then called Exxon,  Imperial Oil is linked to the Esso brand of gas stations, which were an important national network of gas stations across Canada. Esso became a household brand. Beginning in 1934 it sponsored Hockey Night in Canada radio broadcasts, and the introductory music for the program was an Esso jingle,  later in 1952 becoming the TV sponsors, such that throughout the 1950s and 60s, Canadian hockey TV was accompanied by Esso commercials. 

1962 Esso Commercial from their "Right with the Times" Series, played with during hockey games.  Embedded from the Glenbow Museum's Youtube channel. 

ExxonMobil and Climate Change

Today, Imperial Oil is still majority owned by ExxonMobil. ExxonMobil owns oil patches, refineries, and gas stations in countries around the planet and is one of the world's most powerful corporations. 

ExxonMobil was a leading company in promoting climate change denial. Beginning in the 1980s, ExxonMobil conducted a campaign to discredit climate change science. There campaign included paying experts to undermine and cast doubt on scientific findings about climate change through the media, in think tanks, lobbying, advertising, and in government committees, and scientific organizations. They helped to found the Global Climate Coalition, an international lobby group from 1989-2001 which fought against the regulation of greenhouse gases.  At the same time that ExxonMobil was spreading and funding climate change denial activities, its internal research acknowledged climate change and included it in its long term corporate planning.  ExxonMobil's activities were documented by investigative journalists at Inside Climate News

Beginning in 2015, ExxonMobil's  practices deceiving the public about climate change began to come under investigation by the US Attorney General, as well as the New York, Californian and Massachusetts Attorney Generals. In 2014, the company publicly admitted that climate change was a concern.

Today, ExxonMobil not only one of the world's biggest multinationals, it is considered one of the companies that contributes most to climate change. The UK Climate Accountability Institute tracks which companies and institutions have contributed the most to releasing greenhouse gases since 1968.

ExxonMobil is the planet's fourth largest contributor to green house gases.