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.