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When Suncor Energy announced former Imperial Oil CEO Rich Kruger would be taking over its top job back in April, it was obvious that more change was in the offing. And while the job cuts and cost reductions he’s announced in the months since haven’t surprised many people, the news that Canada's largest emitter was going to abandon any pretense of caring about climate change probably did. “Our current strategic framework is insufficient in terms of what it takes to win,” Kruger, also a former ExxonMobil executive, told investors and analysts on the company’s most recent quarterly conference call. “While important, we have a bit of a disproportionate emphasis on the longer-term energy transition.”

This is a company, after all, that brought former Liberal leadership contender Martha Hall Findlay in to serve as its chief sustainability officer in 2020, and then promoted her to the role of “chief climate officer” in February 2022. That was the first such appointment by any Canadian oil and gas company, and while she left Suncor later that year due to health and personal challenges, she remained optimistic about her former employer’s commitment to the cause. But Arlene Strom, who took over for Hall Findlay as chief sustainability officer, retires at the end of this year, and the company has decided to eliminate the role completely.

It’s not like Suncor was making any great strides in the direction of climate leadership under Kruger’s predecessors, mind you. It was, after all, still an oilsands company intent on increasing production and associated greenhouse gas emissions. It sold off its wind and solar assets last year, ostensibly to focus on “sustainable jet fuel” and carbon capture and storage projects. And for all of its talk about net-zero targets and lowering carbon emissions, it hadn’t actually done much walking in that direction. Maybe Kruger’s honesty here helps remind us what these companies are really all (and always were) about: making money.

Suncor’s not the only climate-curious oil company backing away from previous commitments. In the face of rising oil prices, BP scaled back its promised 40 per cent production cut by 2030 to a more modest 25 per cent. Shell, which had committed to reducing its oil production 20 per cent by 2030, decided to achieve that by selling it to another oil company — which will, of course, keep producing oil.

Yes, both companies remain ostensibly committed to their 2050 net-zero targets, but given the ease with which they’ve abandoned more imminent ones, it’s not clear why anyone should take them seriously. As Dan Cohn, a global energy transition researcher at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis told The Guardian, “they have left no doubt that their pledges were deployed for cynical political purposes, only to be ditched when they no longer suited the industry’s strategic position.”

Businesses are free to do what they want, of course, subject to the rules and regulations governments impose on them. But this flip-flop on climate commitments should remind everyone that voluntary pledges and promises are no substitute for legally binding responsibilities, especially when they can be discarded with the stroke of a pen — or in anticipation of a different government, with different priorities, coming to power. Canada’s oil and gas industry may well be betting that Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives will win the next election, and that the Tories would happily release them from any responsibilities to future generations or the climate. The current federal government, which has already offered up companies like Suncor billions of dollars in subsidies for decarbonization (and is still being pressed by them for tens of billions more), would do well to remember that.

Kruger, for his part, seems very taken with the notion of “winning.” It’s a word that popped up repeatedly in his comments on Suncor’s recent conference call, and it’s one he’s used in previous interviews to explain his approach. "I consider myself to be reasonably decisive, and very competitive," he told the Canadian Press’s Amanda Stephenson when he first took on the job in May. "I play to win."

But what, exactly, does “winning” mean here — and who stands to lose as a result? After all, if it wasn’t clear before, it should be by now: the senior executives at oil and gas companies like Suncor are deliberately ragging the puck in order to delay making meaningful investments in the future and are not willing to constrain their ability to shower shareholders with dividends and stock buybacks. The Rich Krugers of the world want to drive up their share price, see their stock options pay out and maximize the amount of cash they can put in their bank account.

Yes, they’ll continue to pay lip service to the idea of 2050 targets, but that’s because they know they won’t be the ones who have to do the heavy lifting to reach them. By then, they’ll be comfortably retired in some other part of the country or the world — that is, if they’re even still alive. The failure to invest in real climate solutions back in 2023 (like, say, Occidental Petroleum’s recent US$1.1 billion purchase of Carbon Engineering) and the costs that will be imposed on people in the decades that followed, is someone else’s problem.

Suncor Energy is one of Canada's biggest oilsands companies and the single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in the country. So why is its CEO scaling back its already inadequate climate ambitions — and what should Ottawa do about it?

You know, ours.

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They've had their greatest windfall year since 1973, just drowning in money. If they kept up the show, they might have been shamed to increase the budget for the pretending, which is all money gone to waste.

I think, too, that they know the jig is up. They can't remain Good Guys to the next generation, no matter how many Merchants of Doubt peddle alternative stories for the daily disaster news. So they might just as well "go for it", be Bond villains, but indispensable ones until their product is replaced. Which is ongoing and accelerated, but so huge they do have some decades.

Meanwhile, CATL battery company, the largest in the world (yeah, it's Chinese and it dominates the world market), will be releasing a restructured lithium iron phosphate battery early next year that is revolutionary in terms of energy density, range, competitive pricing and longevity. All other battery companies supplying EVs and grid storage facilities are far behind in their R&D and technological advancement and many will probably fold.

CATL will also be releasing a sodium battery in future that is nearing completion in the lab. It will probably be a hybrid that does not use lithium, nickel or cobalt and promises excellent cold weather performance on top of all the other advantages listed above.

If Suncor et al cannot see the worldwide threat EVs and grid storage with superior batteries pose to their business model in the next few years, then they deserve to be made redundant once they can no longer make their blindfolded shareholders happy.

It's possible downtown Calgary will have a lot of empty office towers by the mid-30's.

Waving a white flag of surrender? Hardly. Suncor is defiantly waving the black flag of burn-the-house-down anarchy, and maybe adding the skull-and-crossbones of the pirate's "I'll take everything I can for as long as I can get away with it" amorality. No surprise, really. In luring Rich Kruger out of retirement (with millions, no doubt), making him even Richer Kruger, Suncor's Board of Directors chose an old guy from the last century whose no doubt lucrative career was with Imperial Oil, the Canadian subsidiary of Exxon, a leader over decades in climate denial propaganda and active lobbying against any measures that might reduce profitability by addressing climate change.
Suncor's Board is chaired by Michael Wilson, former Conservative Finance Minister. Shame on him and the rest of the Board. Suncor is a major Canadian company whose future survival will depend on effectively acting to reduce emissions. In dismissing the importance of climate action and eliminating the executive Sustainabilty position, after Suncor previously backed out of its ventures in clean solar and wind energy, Suncor is betraying the trust of Canadians and barrelling straight back to the twentieth century, all so Kruger can "win" and "reward shareholders". How incredibly short-sighted. Of course, Suncor can profitably milk the cow for a while, and Kruger will be long gone when it goes out of business in a decade or two, stranded on the oil-sandbar of history. Too bad - it could and should have been a leader.

Oil companies operating in Alberta during the 2014-20 world oil price downturn were weeping and begging for taxpayer largesse while also blaming environmentalists and Trudeau for a multitude of sins, chief among them of being solely responsible for controlling the world price of crude, or so went the implications. Conspiracies were spouted, tears were shed, fat corporate hands were extended to receive cash, shareholders were not happy and wanted to sell dividend losing company branches.

What a difference an uptick in price and post-pandemic oil demand made. I wonder what outlandish conspiracies will abound when cheap renewables, affordable EVs and better grants for energy conservation and transitioning to electricity really start eroding demand for oil & gas?

I doubt even a Poilievre government can stop the slide, though if elected (shudder!) it will surely try between moving the Bank of Canada onto bitcoin, hiring Q consultants to run the Ministry of Health and appointing Convoy alumni to write national transportation policy.

Appreciate the hopeful stuff Alex, and "shudder" doesn't even come close. Did you read this though?

A different Michael Wilson. The ex-finance minster under Mulroney passed away in 2019. The chair of Suncor is the former CEO of Agrium. (The late Michael Wilson actually set an important tax precedent that is sadly overlooked at present - a temporary wealth surtax to help slay the deficit.)

A different Michael Wilson. The ex-finance minster under Mulroney passed away in 2019. The chair of Suncor is the former CEO of Agrium. (The late Michael Wilson actually set an important tax precedent that is sadly overlooked at present - a temporary wealth surtax to help slay the deficit.)

I'd submit that it's not amoral, but immoral ... and possibly criminal. Telling lies to shareholders is fraud -- and should get them delisted from stock exchanges. So is telling lies to get government (or bank) money ... or insurance. Unfortunately, our government is complicit in the shole schmozzle, and Canadian taxpayers are already on the hook for way too much of their joint misdeeds.

According to a report published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Feb. 2023, the carbon captured in oil and gas production is used mainly to facilitate additional oil extraction. CCS projects do nothing to reduce downstream emissions. Furthermore, CCS is 'energy intensive, slow to implement, and unproven at scale, making it a poor strategy for decarbonizing oil and gas production, as evidenced by the track record of the technology in Canada and globally.' It is also very expensive. To date, the federal govt alone has committed more than $9 billion to it, and by 2030 Canadian support is estimated to be twice as high as the equivalent subsidy in the US. Finally, 'CCS is a risky investment for taxpayers and comes with a significant opportunity cost for near-term, more cost-effective solutions.' 

So will Suncor's abandoning of CCS mean a cut in govt subsidies? If it does, I guess that might be some small consolation for the rest of us.

I like to think that in offering a 50% tax credit on CCS developments, the government is calling the industry's bluff. The oil companies claim CCS technology will eliminate emissions from production - they don't see why they should count emissions from burning the oil thus produced - so go for it, if you think that's the answer. The tax credits only accrue IF the companies actually invest in CCS, so they have to divert some of their profits to CCS development before they get anything.

I think this is largely a stalling tactic, pretending they are addressing emission while demanding ever higher levels of subsidies to do so. My bet is that few CCS projects will actually get built. As you say, Sally, it costs a lot and doesn't work very well. Most of the tax credits the government has offered will likely never be claimed.

Aha. Thanks Trish.

We finally rid ourselves of Fredde Krueger and now we have someone scarier, Rich Kruger, the new nightmare on any street but with money and power to take all of us into the boiler room.