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With this summer’s cataclysmic wildfires still on everyone’s mind, Suncor’s boss avoided saying Monday how much responsibility for the climate crisis rests on the shoulders of the fossil fuel industry.
Rich Kruger, the president and CEO of Suncor, one of Canada’s largest oil and gas companies, was in the hot seat Oct. 16 after a Parliamentary committee summoned him to Ottawa to answer questions about the climate crisis and Canada’s energy sector. Kruger, the former head of ExxonMobil’s Canadian subsidiary Imperial Oil, took over at Suncor six months ago, and in August, he told analysts on a conference call that his company had been too focused on the transition away from fossil fuels.
Here are five things you need to know about the appearance by Kruger and other witnesses at the Standing Committee on Natural Resources:
This past summer’s wildfire season was the “most destructive ever recorded,” according to Natural Resources Canada. Nearly 200,000 people were put under an evacuation order, and by September, fires had destroyed over 16 million hectares. Toxic smoke from the fires blanketed major cities in Canada and the United States.
Scientists say climate change, which is caused by heat-trapping carbon pollution that comes from sources like burning fossil fuels, is creating conditions for wildfires to burn easier. Federal scientists were part of an international team that determined climate change “more than doubled the likelihood of extreme fire weather conditions” in Quebec.
NDP natural resources critic Charlie Angus, who tabled a motion to call Kruger to appear before members of Parliament, had argued earlier that Kruger’s comments about rebalancing away from the energy transition were “irresponsible” in the context of wildfire destruction and evacuations.
During a meeting of the Standing Committee on Natural Resources on Monday, Angus asked Kruger how much responsibility the oil and gas industry was willing to take for a climate that’s destabilized by fossil fuels and forcing more and more people out of their homes.
“I can obviously sense your public passion on this,” Kruger replied. “I think global energy and greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are complex issues that are important to our society, and we all have a role in it — whether that’s government, whether that’s industry or whether that’s society.”
“So I share your passionate concern about the topic, but I don’t think it’s [a question of] what fraction is one party versus the other.”
Kruger told the committee Suncor was “taking tangible and financially material actions to decarbonize our existing hydrocarbon businesses.” He pointed to Suncor’s replacement of aging petroleum coke-fired boilers with natural gas-fired power at its oilsands mine, investments in biofuels like ethanol and in “sustainable aviation fuels,” operating its ethanol plant in Ontario, using solvents instead of steam to extract oil and the installation of electric vehicle chargers at Petro-Canada gas stations. Suncor has set a goal of reaching net-zero emissions from its operations and from the electricity it purchases to run its business by 2050.
But the company still expects to produce up to 770,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day this year and posted similar figures last year. In its 2023 climate report, Suncor estimated it emitted 33.5 million tonnes of carbon pollution in 2022, as a result of its own operations mining for oil, and running refineries. It was also responsible for another 1.5 million tonnes that represented all the electricity, heating and cooling, and steam it used to power its facilities.
The largest part of Suncor’s pollution comes from the actual use of its products. If all the crude oil it mined and extracted was fully combusted, those emissions would total 126 million tonnes of carbon pollution, according to Suncor’s report — a figure that represents roughly one-fifth of all of Canada’s emissions. (This may overestimate combusted emissions, since not all crude oil is turned into fuel, but it also doesn’t include other oil that Suncor buys from third parties and sends to its refineries.)
In general, the oil and gas sector is Canada’s “largest and fastest growing source of emissions,” and Canada is the fourth-largest crude oil exporter in the world. Rising emissions from the oil and gas sector, and from gas-powered transportation have been offsetting declines in other economic sectors.
Kruger’s former company ExxonMobil engaged in a communications strategy to emphasize the responsibility of reducing emissions on the individual consumer, deflecting attention away from companies that were actually supplying the fossil fuels, according to research by Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes and others.
ExxonMobil has known since the 1970s that burning fossil fuels would heat up the planet, endangering humanity. But the company scaled back such research in the 1980s and instead focused on instilling doubt in people’s minds about the reality of climate change. Those internal company predictions have turned out to be stunningly accurate, recent research has revealed.
On Monday, Angus held up copies of documents from ExxonMobil showing internal global warming projections and asked Kruger to account for his time at the company.
“You knew, scientifically, that what you were doing was destabilizing the planet,” Angus charged.
“You have the advantage of looking at documents that I haven’t seen,” Kruger responded. He said that while he had worked for the company for 31 years in operations and projects, “I never worked in strategy or research.”
“If you have questions about what Exxon knew and when, they’re probably best addressed to Exxon,” Kruger said.
Angus told The Narwhal during a committee break that he was surprised at Kruger’s suggestion he had little to do with company strategy, particularly given the many lawsuits filed against the industry for misleading the public about climate change.
“Here’s a former vice-president of Exxon, a guy who’s been key on their management team, telling me he doesn’t really know anything about the documents,” Angus said.
“I mean, there’s massive lawsuits … to say, ‘Well, we all had a hand in it, is simply not credible.’ ”
The federal government introduced clean fuel regulations meant to reduce the carbon pollution associated with the different stages of fossil fuel production and use, also called the carbon intensity of fuels.
Gasoline and diesel producers and importers are targeted by the regulations and must comply by either undertaking projects like carbon capture, which can lower a fuel’s carbon intensity, or by developing lower carbon fuels like biodiesel and hydrogen and advancing electric vehicle technology.
Suncor operates several refineries, some of which produce gasoline or diesel, and the company also has a retail brand, Petro-Canada, which sells gasoline and diesel to consumers. As a result, Bloc Quebecois MP Mario Simard asked Kruger if he agreed with the regulations.
“The question is, do I agree with the clean fuel regulations? I’ve not studied the regulation in my six months in the job here,” Kruger replied.
“But, what I would say is, whether it’s at our Petro-Canada sites, or anywhere else, we comply with all regulations that are there. So in terms of agree or disagree, I don’t know that that’s so relevant.”
Simard also asked Kruger to explain the difference between the cost of the regulations on the company compared with Suncor’s investments in clean energy.
“I think I’ll go back to what I said earlier — I haven’t studied up on the clean fuel regulations,” Kruger responded.
Simard returned to the topic later, telling Kruger in French he was “confused” at the oil and gas CEO admitting he had not studied the regulations given the impact on the industry.
At this point, Kruger said he was “very aware of the clean fuel regulations,” and the company was complying with them.
In comments to The Narwhal after the committee meeting, Kruger said his statements were “not a contradiction.”
“I understand the regulations, and we adhere to the regulations in our fuels, and with all of the other things we have in our business,” he said.
Suncor is one of six members of the Pathways Alliance, a group of oilsands companies that has committed to reaching net-zero emissions from their production by 2050.
The group has been lobbying federal and provincial governments for tens of billions of dollars of public money and the establishment of favourable laws and regulations to create a large carbon capture and storage network in the oilpatch, as well as use nuclear power and other technologies to slash upstream emissions.
The group has pitched its plan as a way for the Canadian oil industry to continue to operate in a low-carbon world, and compete with other oil-producing regions in the decades to come. But committing public resources to the fossil fuel industry risks locking in oil production at a time when the planet needs to be getting off oil and gas, critics point out. Pathways has also lobbied to delay and weaken proposed federal rules that would cap emissions on the oil and gas sector.
During his comments to the committee, Kruger portrayed the Pathways Alliance as a “public-private partnership,” typically a term used in Canada to refer to a long-term, contractual arrangement between the public sector and corporations to build and deliver a service.
“On the Pathways work, which I think is a — quite frankly, I think it’s a brilliant strategy — it’s about a public-private partnership, that enables the decarbonization of Canada’s hydrocarbon reserves, so that companies and Canadians nationwide can continue to benefit from this resource that we’ve been blessed with,” Kruger said.
Kruger told The Narwhal after the committee meeting that he didn’t mean to refer to any specific public-private partnership model, but was speaking in general terms.
Mark Cameron, vice-president of external relations at the Pathways Alliance, also appeared as a witness at the committee meeting, although his time speaking to members of Parliament was cut short when the committee decided to limit questions in light of an upcoming vote call in the House of Commons.
Asked by The Narwhal what he thought Kruger meant by the public-private partnership model, Cameron said it was aspirational and that the group had not yet signed any contracts.
“We’re seeking a public-private partnership,” he clarified. “Pathways Alliance is a consortium of six industry participants but we are working with federal and provincial governments.”
The federal government has promised to cap emissions from the oil and gas sector, but details are still forthcoming. Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault has said the proposal could be unveiled as soon as this month, but definitely before the upcoming United Nations climate conference on Nov. 30.
The government has said there are two possible ways Canada could establish the cap in law — either by putting in place new regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to enact a new cap-and-trade regime, or by amending the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act to tweak the carbon price and put in place emissions standards specifically for the oil and gas sector.
The Pathways Alliance told the government it opposed the use of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to establish the emissions cap, and wanted a “non-regulatory” approach, or in other words the emissions law. But one legal expert said the use of the emissions law could open up the government to being challenged in court.
Cameron told The Narwhal he expected legal challenges against the cap even if the government chooses the regulatory option.
“I think there’s a lot of questions as to whether you can set up a cap-and-trade regime, which is sort of a flexible market-rate based regime, under (the Canadian Environmental Protection Act), which is much more of a prohibitions and penalties-based regime,” Cameron said.
“So I think there’s going to be legal challenges from either industry, or (non-governmental organizations) or provincial governments, no matter what.”
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