For those who enjoy a large dash of political theatre mixed in with their energy policy discussion, Monday was a banner day on Parliament Hill.
It had almost everything — including banners — although it lacked a dramatic soundtrack or popcorn.
At the standing committee on natural resources, MPs invited and took turns grilling — or backing — Suncor Energy CEO Rich Kruger during an hour-long session to discuss climate policy.
For the NDP and Liberal MPs, it was a chance to admonish the new chief executive of Suncor, one of the country’s largest oilsands producers, for comments he made this summer about the company’s views on the energy transition.
For Conservative MPs, it was a chance to lob a few shots at the Liberal government over Friday’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling, which found parts of the Impact Assessment Act are unconstitutional.
For Kruger, it was a chance to explain to federal politicians what he actually meant during a second-quarter earnings call with industry analysts in August. His comments led to a political pile-on, one that included criticism from federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.
“My comments on our earnings call looked at our company and said, ‘For us to be a part of the solution for the long term, we have to do today’s business very well,’ ” Kruger told the committee.
“Our commitments on decarbonization and being part of the transition have not changed at all since I’ve taken over in this position six months ago.”
What exactly did Kruger say to ignite a political firestorm and his request to show up in Ottawa on Monday?
After the integrated oil producer faced shareholder dissatisfaction over its stock performance and safety record last year, Kruger took over as CEO in April. In the summer, he discussed with analysts a re-examination of the company’s strategy and objectives.
“We judge that our current strategic framework is not — or is insufficient — in terms of what it takes to win, the lack of emphasis on today’s business drivers. And while important, we have a bit of a disproportionate emphasis on the longer-term energy transition,” he said on the August conference call.
“Today, we win by creating value through our large integrated asset base underpinned by oilsands.”
The remarks were made several weeks after the company announced plans to eliminate 1,500 positions by year’s end.
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Coming after Suncor sold off its wind and solar developments last fall for $730 million to Canadian Utilities, critics took his comments as a sign that Suncor was retreating from its climate commitments.
In an interview this summer with The Canadian Press, the federal environment minister called the remarks disappointing, saying Suncor’s CEO was “basically disengaging from climate change and sustainability, that he’s going to focus on short-term profit.”
Kruger, a former CEO of Imperial Oil and previously an executive with Exxon Mobil, pointed out that Suncor spent $540 million last year on its decarbonization initiatives. Suncor is also part of a group of six oilsands producers working together to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
During Monday’s hearings, Liberal MP John Aldag pointed to the industry’s hefty profits and noted the increased effect of climate change, including wildfires that raged throughout parts of Canada this year.
“It seems like you are kind of doubling down right now and trying to get every last dollar out of that oil and gas sector,” he said.
Suncor made about $9 billion in profits over the past three years while paying about $10 billion in income taxes and royalties to the provincial and federal governments, Kruger replied.
The company has earmarked about $1.5 billion currently to replace two older coke-fired boilers at its oilsands base plant with two high-efficiency cogeneration units, which will reduce emissions.
“I agree with some of the testimony that the oil and gas sector has contributed greatly to the Canadian economy, but I will say it’s been decades since we have known that it is also boiling our planet,” said Heather McPherson, the NDP MP for Edmonton Strathcona.
“You cut contracts with Canadian companies last year and are laying off another 1,500 workers this year.”
During the hour-long session, Bloc Quebecois MP Mario Simard asked about the costs to consumers at the pumps to help decarbonize, while NDP MP Charlie Angus questioned Kruger about his previous experience working with Exxon Mobil.
“How much responsibility is your industry willing to take for the destabilized climate and the climate crisis that has forced 200,000 people out of their homes this summer,” Angus said.
For Conservative members of the committee, the hearing gave it a chance to blast the Trudeau government for its energy policies, pointing to last week’s court ruling on the Impact Assessment Act.
Alberta MP Shannon Stubbs noted the decision on the cornerstone piece of legislation governing federal oversight of major resource projects “demonstrates just how much uncertainty has been created in the last eight years of this government.”
Meanwhile, Environmental Defence, which held a photo op before the hearing in Ottawa — with demonstrators holding signs that read Make Polluters Pay — issued a news release once the session wrapped up, saying: “Parliamentarians need to see through the oil and gas greenwashing and hold industry accountable.”
For Suncor’s CEO, Monday was a reminder of just how polarized and politicized these issues have become, even as the company reiterates its commitment to reaching net-zero emissions.
“I guess the lesson learned for me in this is if anything I’ve said is misinterpreted I have a responsibility . . . to be sure that we are clear,” Kruger said.
“And for clarity, Suncor remains committed to reducing and decarbonizing its existing hydrocarbon business and being a part of the longer-term energy transition for the future.”
Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.