Would You Buy a Used Energy Strategy from This Guy?
Suncor CEO Rich Kruger wants to double down on oil sands production while Canada burns and the world bakes. Investors are thrilled. What planet do they think they live on?
It’s 2023. Huge swaths of Canada are on fire. Much of the world is baking, burning, drowning, or starving. And the new CEO of Calgary-based Suncor Energy wants his company to go all-in on its oil sands operations after it sold off all its wind and solar projects.
“We have a bit of a disproportionate emphasis on the longer-term energy transition,” Rich Kruger told analysts earlier this week. “Today, we win by creating value through our large integrated asset base underpinned by oil sands.”
If you live downstream or downwind of Suncor’s operations, or if you’re like all of us and depend on the atmospheric systems the company is doing its best to broil—what could possibly go wrong?
And if you’re an investor who expects this company to survive its own business strategy as governments tackle the climate emergency and the wider investment picture shifts—or even if you expect your other investments to deliver as advertised despite mounting climate chaos—what in the world are you thinking?
At least the new Suncor CEO is performing as expected, however unpalatable and dangerous that performance might be.
Over a 39-year career, Kruger rose to the top job at ExxonMobil’s Canadian branch plant, Imperial Oil, before coming out of retirement to take the helm at Suncor. So he comes out of a company culture that has been built around denying and suppressing climate science since the 1970s, spending lavishly to fund the climate denial that has poisoned our politics as surely as it has helped bring us to this climate crisis point.
You would scarcely know that this was the same Canadian fossil company that spent years spinning itself as a master of the energy transition, spending loudly on the solar and wind projects, and winning a basketful of plaudits [pdf] for its corporate performance. Until it dumped the clean investments and dropped the pretence.
Someone Else’s Problem
It isn’t unusual for Canada’s fossil industry to ignore its “externalities”—the antiseptic language that economists use for company execs who managed to graduate kindergarten without learning to clean up after themselves when they’d finished playing. Now they’re all grown up, and they’ve built an industry that thinks nothing of leaving Alberta with as much as $260 billion in abandoned oil and gas wells.
Or of loading up the atmosphere with nearly 200 million tonnes of climate pollution per year, not counting the astonishing 290 megatonnes unleashed by a record wildfire year in Canada by the end of July, some proportion of which is attributable back to Suncor’s operations.
Or of dumping massive quantities of oil sands mine waste into surrounding waterways, as Suncor did in April with a six-million-litre release of high-silt water into the Athabasca River. The incident pointed to “a systemic problem with the management and structural integrity of tailings ponds across the entire region, and a regulator that refuses to regulate,” Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam said at the time.
Now Kruger is doing us all the courtesy of at least saying it out loud: we’re here, our emissions record is clear, and frankly, everyone, we don’t give a damn.
‘As Much Money as Possible’
"I consider myself to be reasonably decisive and very competitive," and "I play to win,” Kruger told analysts in May, a month after taking over the company. “We are in the business to make money and as much of it as possible, and everybody starting with me needs to see how they do that.”
For better and for worse, that’s the language investors expect to hear from any company. But still with the theme of things we should have learned in kindergarten, this Sesame Street analysts’ call was not brought to you by the letters “E”, “S”, and “G”. Not even rhetorically.
“He's just saying the quiet part out loud now,” writes veteran climate policy analyst Dan Woynillowicz. “Reminder: Hoping fossil fuel giants will see the light on climate hasn’t worked.”
“I'm glad this man is not my uncle,” adds Ottawa climate campaigner Angela Keller-Herzog.
Meanwhile, Suncor was on the move, closing a “blockbuster”, $5.5-billion deal to buy up TotalÉnergies’ oil sands operations and announcing a 20% cut in its work force in the name of safety and efficiency. In June, Kruger signalled another 1,500 job cuts by the end of the year.
But, hey, not to worry. While Suncor’s latest Climate Report [pdf] shows emissions from its operations growing slowly but steadily to nearly 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2022, the company is planning on a 10-megatonne reduction by 2030, SustainableBiz reports. They say they’ll wrangle the cuts from the Scope 3 emissions that account for about 80% of the carbon in a barrel of oil.
It’s good of Suncor to acknowledge the emissions that occur after their product is shipped to its customers and used as directed. But don’t imagine that the 10-megatonne reduction—if they actually get it done—will come out of their in-house operations.
Those eventual, quite likely mythical emission cuts will largely depend on the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies that Suncor has been touting as a member of the Pathways Alliance, whose six members account for 95% of the country’s oil sands production. As The Weekender reported last week, Pathways members have flatly refused to support a 2030 cap on Canada’s oil and gas emissions and made it clear they won’t invest their recent obscene, record profits in the CCS technologies they say they want—not without lavish taxpayer support.
Behaving Badly in Polite Company
Suncor’s behaviour is beyond offensive in the week when Enterprise, Northwest Territories burned to the ground, about 65% of the population of the NWT has been evacuated, and people in West Kelowna are fleeing for their lives after the McDougall Creek wildfire jumped Okanagan Lake. But they’re just one of a parade of fossil companies that have been abandoning their token, “largely meaningless” commitments to clean energy and decarbonization.
The industry only gets away with it because it’s still okay to pretend in polite company that anyone can be serious about getting the climate emergency under control without rapidly phasing down extraction of oil, gas, and coal. Fossil businesses like Suncor spend millions on PR. Climate hawks object. The public gets confused. Financial institutions keep on pouring money into new oil and gas projects. And the vilification these massive climate polluters so richly deserve (and some of them have been expecting) never happens in the circles of influence they inhabit. Not among the institutional investors that hold 65% of Suncor’s stock.
But finally, the tone is beginning to change.
Kruger’s moves this week “will please some investors, who would like to wring as much money as possible from these fossil fuel assets before they become stranded,” writes Corporate Knights founder and publisher Toby Heaps. But “with Big Oil incumbents bailing on clean energy, it will be up to other sectors and entrepreneurs to accelerate the energy transition and reap the rewards of leading the low-carbon economy, one that’s already rivalling—and will soon dwarf—fossil fuels.”
So “let’s cheer them on and let’s stop wasting time by giving Big Oil a seat at the tables where we make important decisions about our future,” Heaps adds, beginning with this year’s COP 28 climate negotiations in Dubai. “It’s bad enough that this year’s summit is being chaired by an oil company executive. Let’s at least keep the rest of the dinosaurs out.”
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he and the rest of the Energy Mix team scan 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix, The Energy Mix Weekender, and our newest weekly e-digest, Cities & Communities.
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