“We are part of the problem when it comes to climate change. But we also believe we can be part of the solution.” A conversation with Fiona Jones, general manager, sustainability

“We are part of the problem when it comes to climate change. But we can be part of the solution.” Learn more:

“We are part of the problem when it comes to climate change. But we also believe we can be part of the solution.” A conversation with Fiona Jones, general manager, sustainability

“We are part of the problem when it comes to climate change. But we also believe we can be part of the solution.” A conversation with Fiona Jones, general manager, sustainability

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Suncor employees at the Nikanotee Fen, an environmental reclamation initiative

Climate change

Fiona Jones, GM of sustainability

“We are part of the problem when it comes to climate change. But we also believe we can be part of the solution.”

A conversation with Fiona Jones, general manager, sustainability

Suncor recently adopted a new sustainability performance goal aimed at significantly reducing the carbon intensity of its operations. The goal is to reduce the overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity by 30% by 2030. That target is ambitious. But even more significant is the aspiration behind this performance goal — to harness technology and innovation in ways that position the oil sands to become carbon competitive in an increasingly carbon-constrained energy future.

Suncor’s Fiona Jones, general manager, sustainability, discusses the thinking behind the new goal and how the company intends to address the challenges ahead.

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Why did Suncor decide to adopt this GHG performance goal — and why now?

It really has to do with addressing two pressing and parallel realities. The first is that global energy demand continues to rise and, for the foreseeable future, oil will remain an important part of meeting that demand. The second is that climate change is a real and growing global challenge and that human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, is contributing to adverse changes in the global climate. As Canada’s largest integrated energy company, we recognize we are part of the problem when it comes to climate change. But we also believe we can be part of the solution.

To succeed going forward, we have to be cost-competitive and carbon-competitive with other oil basins in the world. Our aspiration is to produce some of the lowest carbon-intensity crude oils and petroleum products. To get there, we need to go beyond today’s capabilities and technologies. That’s why we’ve designed a performance goal ambitious enough to drive the innovation required to realize our aspiration.

So exactly how ambitious is this goal?

It depends on your perspective. There will undoubtedly be critics who’ll say it’s too little over too long a timeframe — and that our goal should be to get off hydrocarbons entirely. But if you accept the premise that there will continue to be a need for responsibly developed oil, I think you would acknowledge that this is a sincere attempt to respond to that need.

And it’s definitely what I would call a “stretch goal,” in the sense that we will have to stretch ourselves in new directions to achieve it. In the case of new projects, with new technologies, significant emissions reductions are more easily achieved. But we also have a lot of existing assets where opportunities for reductions are much more difficult to realize. So with this goal, I think we’ve really upped the ante in terms of how we integrate GHG emission mitigation efforts across our business.

This isn’t just another performance indicator; it’s an aspiration statement that drives us to rethink our processes and business opportunities - and to fundamentally change our GHG intensity.

What are some of the major avenues for pursuing this goal?

Technology, of many kinds, is clearly the biggest lever. That’s why, even in the current low-price commodity environment, Suncor continues to spend about $200 million annually on a suite of research and development projects.

In particular, we are investigating potentially game-changing advances in both in situ and mining processes that could allow us to leave far more of the heavy hydrocarbon chain in the ground. If successful, these technologies would not only dramatically reduce GHG emissions at the extraction phase, they would do the same at the refining and upgrading stages. That’s because we’d be delivering bitumen that required a lot less processing to transform it into lighter petroleum products.

In addition to the R&D work Suncor is doing internally, we are collaborating on multiple fronts with others in our industry and across the broader society to develop potential carbon solutions. Among the organizations we work with are Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), Carbon Management Canada (CMC) and the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC).

We also recognize there are technologies that haven’t even been thought of yet that could play a part in reaching our performance goal. An exciting development in this regard is Evok Innovations, which is a unique partnership between Cenovus Energy, Suncor and the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance. Evok is an entrepreneur-led capital fund that’s designed to find, finance and accelerate next-generation technologies to meet the challenges facing Canada’s energy industry.

As part of COSIA, Suncor is also helping to sponsor a $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE contest that will encourage innovators to come up with new ideas to take carbon dioxide emissions from coal and gas plants and transform them from an environmental liability into useable products, such as building materials or consumer goods. The potential technology solutions could also have application to our own operations.

Beyond the development of new technologies, what are some of the other ways Suncor could meet its performance goal?

There could be significant opportunities to transition to using low carbon fuels in some of our operations as well as harnessing further advances in renewable energy and cogeneration. For example, we could start using a biofuel-based diluent instead of a naptha-based one for thinning bitumen that’s shipped by pipeline. Or we could retrofit the roofs of our Petro Canada service stations — and perhaps even use that solar energy to power electric charging stations. Whether or not we adopt these or other means, will depend on weighing the costs and benefits of each.

Again, the point is that there are certain business investments and opportunities that today are just not feasible for us to undertake, but could become so depending on how things evolve in the coming years.

So it really comes back to something we’ve been saying at Suncor for a long time now: just because things have been done one way in the past doesn’t mean they’ll be done the same way in the future — and we should never simply settle for the status quo.

The oil and gas sector has struggled lately with a low-price environment. Doesn’t that make investments in technology and innovation a harder sell?

Actually, a low-price environment in many ways encourages innovation. We know as a company that we need to be aggressive on both cost-efficiency and emissions. There is a direct link between the two, because energy represents such a large cost for our business. We have more incentive than ever to reduce our own energy use which, in turn, reduces our emissions.

The new emissions goal is targeted over 15 years. Why such a long timeframe? And are you concerned that your stakeholders will want to see results sooner than that?

That’s obviously a concern, because we’re all eager to get results as soon as possible. But when you are talking about the kinds of technologies and innovation we’ll need to achieve our goal, it takes a long time to identify, develop and implement them. Our goal is designed to help drive advances as quickly as possible. But it’s not something that can happen overnight.

Suncor’s GHG goal deals with reductions in emission intensity. That’s not the same as absolute emissions, which will continue to grow as production rates increase. Isn’t that concerning?

We believe the progress we make on the intensity front can help us ultimately bend the curve on absolute emissions as well. In Suncor’s case, we are currently emitting a total of some 21 megatonnes of GHG annually. With the growth projects we now have on deck, we would expect that to increase to perhaps 26 or 27 megatonnes per year. If we could achieve a 30% reduction in our current emissions intensity, that would eliminate over six megatonnes of emissions annually. So we would have increased production substantially, but held our emissions more or less flat. If you keep that trend up, you start making reductions in absolute emissions as well.

What is the rationale for continuing to expand production if it also means growth in absolute GHG emissions?

I think it goes full circle to those parallel realities I talked about at the outset. Global demand for oil continues to grow and it will be supplied, one way or another. By adapting to a carbon-constrained era, we believe the oil sands industry can produce a carbon competitive barrel and be a responsible and sustainable supplier-of-choice — one that makes a positive economic contribution while also addressing the very real challenge of climate change.