Pennies from Heaven

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Toronto, Canada.

Pennies rained down on Imperial Oil’s Annual Meeting of Shareholders to protest the dirtiest gas with record profits.

Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Imperial Oil, Bob Peterson, stopped dead in his speech to the Annual Meeting of Shareholders just two days before Earth Day. Deep inside Toronto’s convention centre, suddenly and without warning, it was raining on him. It was raining pennies.

Except for the pinging of copper on microphones, there was silence, then a cry. “A penny for our health” pleased a protestor while showering pennies on gasping shareholders. Peterson, who earned the year before over $2.8 million in salary, bonuses, and by selling stock, wasn’t tempted to dive for the coins. Instead, he called for security. In less than thirty seconds plainclothes cops grabbed the protestors and frog-marched them out the emergency exits.

Imperial Oil manufactures and sells Esso gasoline, the dirtiest in Canada, containing upwards of 800 parts per million of sulphur. Sulphur-laced gasoline contributes to health-damaging smog, and each year 16,000 Canadians die from polluted air.

It would cost just a penny a litre to remove most of the sulphur from gasoline, yet Imperial drags its feet wanting more time. This while they report record profits, with first quarter profits seven times last year’s thanks to higher crude oil prices.

To their credit, the federal government has mandated dramatic reductions of sulphur in gas to 30 ppm by 2005. Cleaner gasoline, over the next twenty years, would save the health care system approximately $2.7 billion.

While Imperial delays, Friends of the Earth wants action calling for a boycott of Esso gasoline. Mr. Peterson, his board, and the shareholders may still get the message that cleaner air is not negotiable.

To top it off, as a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil (Exxon Mobile owns about 70% of Imperial), Imperial/Esso tows the company line that climate change is still a matter for discussion. Perhaps they would consider holding next year’s Annual Meeting of Shareholders in Tuvalu, or the Maldives Islands, or on any one of the small island states that face inundation from the rising seas of a warming world?

Or perhaps the spector of coral dying from warmer ocean temperatures and polar bears starving due to melting polar ice will melt the hardened hearts of a company sharply focused on profits. Can’t we fantasize that showering cents would knock some sense into them?

As the protestors regrouped outside, hearts pounding and gleeful at having avoided arrest, a man of the street proferred an empty cup. “Can you spare some change for a hot dog?” We reached into our pockets and filled his cup – with pennies. He was ecstatic. He would eat.