Suncor helped write ‘first draft’ of Canadian plan for tackling carbon emissions

Newly obtained documents reveal a Shell executive is also part of the federal advisory group for carbon capture, utilization and storage, which has been kept under wraps for two years

Suncor, one of Canada’s largest oil companies, helped the federal government draft a highly anticipated climate change strategy that was due to be released in 2022 but is now over a year late, documents obtained by The Narwhal show.

An executive from the Calgary-based company, which operates in the oilsands and runs Petro-Canada gas stations across the country, influenced the early development of the government’s forthcoming Carbon Management Strategy, according to departmental records released under access to information law.

Chris Grant, then the vice-president of regional development for Suncor, was handpicked by a senior bureaucrat at Natural Resources Canada to provide private advice to the department concerning carbon capture, utilization and storage.

He was one of 13 members of an advisory group that also included a manager at rival oil and gas company Shell, executives at BMO and Scotiabank, representatives from a cement industry lobby group and from several clean technology firms, and other experts in the field, according to the department.

“Suncor provided input on the first draft” of the carbon management strategy, reads a February 2022 briefing note prepared for Natural Resources Canada deputy minister John Hannaford. Grant was “one of 13 members on the [Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage] Thought Leaders’ senior reference group,” the briefing note stated.

Government officials kept details of this reference group under wraps for two years. The Narwhal only discovered its existence after the departmental records were released.

The committee was so obscure that department officials initially claimed to have no records on it in response to another freedom of information request from The Narwhal. They later revealed that the records in question do exist, but are in a different time period from what The Narwhal had requested.

The briefing note added there was an “additional round of stakeholder input” the government had sought on the issue, early last year, “prior to the finalization and release of the [Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage] Strategy in spring 2022.”

Grant, who has since retired, has been described in company promotional materials as “the engineer leading Suncor’s push to net-zero.” He did not respond to requests for comment from The Narwhal. Hannaford will soon be the country’s top-ranking public servant, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his promotion in May.

It’s unclear what role Shell or other advisory group members played in drafting earlier versions of the strategy, as The Narwhal was only given access to the briefing note regarding Suncor’s role.

The advisory group met three times between April and July 2021, and then continued corresponding over email through 2022, department officials have confirmed.

Natural Resources Canada is still developing the strategy, which it said has now been expanded to cover more technologies and solutions besides carbon capture. In March, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said the government was continuing to consult with “key stakeholders and partners” on developing the strategy. Guilbeault’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the group.

Trucks and equipment scattered among a brown dirt area seen from above.
The Pathways Alliance, a group of six oilsands companies that counts Suncor as a member, wants to capture oilsands emissions and store the carbon underground. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Oil executive who worked on net-zero plans recruited to government advisory group

The carbon management strategy was first called for in the December 2020 federal climate plan. It’s meant to co-ordinate the government’s support for carbon capture technology with its other efforts to decarbonize heavy industry, scale up low-carbon power sources and encourage hydrogen production.

A draft version of the strategy proposed government incentives for carbon storage hubs, according to a leaked copy from July 2021 that was reported by Reuters.

Since then, the government has offered tax breaks for carbon capture and storage projects in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and this spring expanded tax program eligibility to underground storage hubs in British Columbia. (Ontario is also designing a framework for geologic carbon storage projects.)

Storing carbon in an underground hub is the central component of a heavily lobbied plan by the Pathways Alliance, a group of six oilsands companies that counts Suncor as a member.

The Alliance wants to soak up at least $10 billion in public funding to build a mammoth, unprecedented system that would capture carbon from oilsands operations in Alberta and pipe it to an underground reservoir in the province’s east.

The net-zero plans of the Alliance were developed in part by Grant, the Suncor executive named to the government’s advisory group, according to a summary of his work posted to an upcoming petroleum conference.

While Alberta has recently embraced the idea of carbon capture and storage, selecting more than two dozen projects for closer evaluation in 2022, the technology has never been deployed at the scale being proposed, and in some cases is not even commercially available. The International Institute for Sustainable Development has found a lack of evidence showing that applying carbon capture technology can “align with the time scale or ambition necessary for limiting global warming to 1.5 C — especially given that [carbon capture and storage] often facilitates further oil and gas production and use.”

Suncor and other members of the Alliance, which is under investigation by the Competition Bureau for its marketing practices, also have no plans to scale back their production of oil, even though fossil fuel burning accounts for four-fifths of all human-caused emissions globally. (The oilsands emitted 81 million tonnes of emissions in 2020, and Alliance members say they represent 95 per cent of oilsands production.)

Critics have questioned whether oil companies like Suncor are delaying the clean energy transition by pressuring public officials to back the use of carbon capture technology on oil and gas facilities, which could end up locking in future fossil fuel development — at a time when such production must be significantly scaled back over the next decade to slow the impacts of climate change, like more extreme and more frequent wildfires.

Oil and gas storage tanks and other facilities, seen from above.
Climate Action Network Canada says inviting oil companies to discuss climate policy, like a strategy on carbon management, is offering them an opportunity to co-opt the policy process to serve corporate interests. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Advisory group handed industry an ‘opportunity for regulatory capture on a silver platter’ says Climate Action Network Canada

Caroline Brouillette, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, reviewed the members of the advisory group, and the details about Suncor’s influence on the strategy, at The Narwhal’s request.

Brouillette said the advisory group was “completely insufficient” to draft a strategy that would represent the “best interests of all Canadians,” as well as properly reflect the economic, social and environmental risks of “over-investing” in carbon capture technology.

“It is clear that the Canadian oil and gas industry is pushing technological distractions to divert attention away from the sector’s continued expansion of production and increase in emissions,” Brouillette said.

“Inviting them to the climate policy table is serving them an opportunity for regulatory capture on a silver platter.”

Suncor and the Alliance did not respond to requests for comment.

Natural Resources Canada departmental spokesperson Michael MacDonald downplayed Suncor’s influence on the strategy’s development. He said Suncor’s executive was picked based on his expertise, rather than due to the company that employed him.

“Suncor’s input had no impact whatsoever on the timelines for the development of the strategy,” MacDonald said.

“Members of this group were asked to bring their expertise and experiences to the table as individuals, not as representatives of their respective organizations.”

He also portrayed the oil company as just “one of nearly 1,500 organizations and individuals who provided input to inform strategy development,” despite the fact the Suncor executive sat on the much more exclusive 13-member advisory group.

MacDonald said those 1,500 organizations and people included attendees at “meetings and workshops where the draft [Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage] Strategy was presented and discussed.”

He said the government invited each one to provide their views in writing, and the government received 60 written submissions from non-governmental sources, “along with federal and provincial/territorial officials.”

“In addition, input was solicited from all interested Canadians through the NRCan website from July 2021 to November 2022,” MacDonald said.

It was not immediately clear why the departmental briefing note failed to mention any outcomes from those consultations.

Participants say high-ranking departmental officials used advisory group as ‘sounding board’

Drew Leyburne, who is Natural Resources Canada’s assistant deputy minister for energy efficiency and technology, convened the advisory group in 2021, MacDonald said, based on recommendations from department staff. He said members of the group were chosen from outside federal or provincial governments.

Leyburne has been the department’s senior bureaucrat responsible for carbon capture and storage technology since his appointment to the position in the fall of 2019, MacDonald added.

According to the department, the 13 members of the advisory group were:

  • Chris Grant, then vice-president of regional development at Suncor, a major Canadian oilsands company
  • Tim Wiwchar, a manager responsible for carbon capture projects at Shell Canada, a subsidiary of the multinational oil and gas company Shell
  • Adam Auer, then vice-president of environment and sustainability at the Cement Association of Canada, an industry association and lobby group
  • Maria Nsouli, then vice-president of the Impact Investment Fund, a $350-million sustainability fund at BMO
  • Sandra Odendahl, then vice-president of social impact and sustainability at Scotiabank
  • Robert Niven, founder and CEO of CarbonCure, a company based in the Halifax area that develops technology to recycle carbon dioxide into concrete
  • Anna Stukas, vice-president of business development at Carbon Engineering, a Squamish, B.C.,-based company that develops technology to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere
  • Claude Letourneau, CEO of Svante, a company based in the Vancouver area that develops technology to filter and capture carbon dioxide
  • Jeff Pearson, president of Wolf Carbon, a division of Calgary-based Wolf Midstream that oversees the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line system, a carbon dioxide pipeline in Alberta
  • Marcius Extavour, then executive director of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize, a $20-million award for technologies that convert carbon dioxide into commercial products like vodka, sunglasses and watches
  • Beth Hardy Valiaho, vice-president of strategy and stakeholder relations at the International CCS Knowledge Centre, a Regina-based organization that studies and hosts resources on carbon capture technology
  • Ed Whittingham, a clean energy consultant and the former executive director of the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank
  • Richard Chalaturnyk, a professor at the University of Alberta specializing in geothermal storage of carbon dioxide

Leyburne and other officials used the advisory group to float different potential elements of the strategy, according to two members interviewed by The Narwhal.

“The group was a classic advisory committee, where you have the [department] folks, Drew Leyburne and his colleagues, come in and say, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking about,’ ” Whittingham said.

“We give some input, and then maybe we provide some comments on the draft … [it was] casual, non-binding, non-consensus advice. Show up to a meeting, listen to what they have to say, be a sounding board.”

Whittingham said his main advice to the department during the group meetings was to not forget about the goal of permanently removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and that any technology to capture emissions was only one part of the equation.

Chalaturnyk, another advisory group member, said the meetings came out of a departmental desire to stay on top of an industry-led push to produce hydrogen from natural gas, using Alberta’s plentiful gas supplies, that had gripped the province in 2021.

This production of so-called “blue hydrogen” would be accompanied by a need to capture and store the carbon from the industrial process. As a result, Chalaturnyk said the contributions from Suncor and Shell typically centred around their on-the-ground experience with capturing carbon at their facilities.

Suncor, for example, has touted its investments in carbon capture technology and says it plans to use it to help slash the company’s emissions. The Shell representative on the advisory group, Wiwchar, led the company in developing a carbon capture facility at its oilsands processing plant.

“There was such a strong discussion around the federal hydrogen roadmap — that in order for [hydrogen production] to ever get entrenched, or to start that whole process, if they didn’t figure out the cost structure for carbon capture … then it was going to be a non-starter,” Chalaturnyk said.

The government briefing note that detailed Suncor’s influence was written by officials at Natural Resources Canada, for the purpose of preparing Hannaford, the deputy minister, for a meeting he would hold with Jacquie Moore, who was Suncor’s vice-president of external relations at the time.

Suncor lobbyist Daniel Goodwin was also present at the meeting, which occurred a month after Hannaford was appointed to the position, according to the briefing note. Moore is now the company’s top lawyer.

The meeting served as Hannaford’s introduction to some Suncor “key initiatives,” including the company’s membership in the “Oilsands Pathways to Net Zero alliance,” the former name of the Pathways Alliance, which was then a fledgling organization in the oilpatch.

The Alliance was so new at the time that the briefing note shows Hannaford was prepared to ask Moore and Goodwin how it differed from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers — the oil and gas sector’s largest lobby group, which also counts Suncor as a member.

“While I understand that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers will continue to have a broader mandate for oil and gas advocacy and this new group will lead the work on oilsands, could you tell me more about this organization and why it was created?” reads one of the prepared questions for Hannaford in the briefing note.

Carbon capture strategy shifts to encompass nature-based solutions and direct air capture

Canada’s 2020 climate plan first called for the government to “develop a comprehensive carbon capture, use and storage strategy and explore other opportunities to help keep Canada globally competitive in this growing industry.”

The 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, released in 2022, had a slightly different approach. It called on the government to “develop a comprehensive [Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage] Strategy to guide the development and deployment of [carbon capture, utilization and storage] technologies to mitigate [greenhouse gas] emissions from a range of industrial sectors in Canada, such as steel, cement, chemicals, and the oil and gas sector.”

Marcius Extavour, an advisory group member who is now chief climate solutions officer at TIME CO2, a new division of the media company focused on the environment, said his general belief is that carbon removal technologies make the most sense in the context of industrial applications that produce emissions, but where society still desires the end product, such as aluminum, steel or cement.

Carbon capture technology, said Auer, who is now president of the Cement Association of Canada, “should be understood as more than just a technology for the oil and gas sector. [Carbon capture, utilization and storage] is a critical technology for cement and other sectors to reach net-zero.”

The government said the carbon management strategy is over a year late because it decided to go back to the drawing board in order to soften the emphasis on carbon capture.

“While the Government of Canada previously committed to developing a [Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage] Strategy, it was determined that a more holistic view of carbon management solutions was necessary in this space,” MacDonald, the departmental spokesperson, said.

Carbon capture, utilization and storage “technology is not, on its own, a silver bullet to combat climate change,” MacDonald said. “It is, however, one component of an overarching strategy that seeks to make significant emissions reductions on a pathway to net-zero, and do so in a manner that ensures Canada’s continued and future prosperity.”

As a result, “rather than focusing just on [carbon capture, utilization and storage],” the strategy will now incorporate federal investments in what are known as nature-based solutions, like planting trees and restoring wetlands, he said, as well as other technologies like direct air capture that pulls carbon out of the atmosphere instead of at an industrial site.

“This is why the name has been changed to ‘Carbon Management Strategy,’ and why its release has been delayed,” MacDonald said.

Both Brouillette, from Climate Action Network Canada, and Extavour said this broadening of the strategy follows an international trend. The United States Department of Energy, for example, changed the name of its Office of Fossil Energy in 2021 to the “Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management,” to reflect that carbon capture is only one part of its strategy for minimizing the climate and environmental impacts of fossil fuels. The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, the cement association noted, also contains funding to encourage carbon removal projects.

Natural Resources Canada says it’s still consulting with other federal departments and agencies, as well as industry, finance, academia, Indigenous organizations, advocacy groups and provincial and territorial governments to finalize the strategy. The government did not provide an estimate for when the strategy will be released.

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Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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