Report on Sustainability 2019

Stepping forward on sustainability

Eric Axford serves as Suncor’s chief sustainability officer, an executive-level position created just over a year ago. He is charged with helping Suncor navigate a complex and challenging external environment, and embedding leading sustainability practices and capabilities across the organization.
Eric Axford; Executive Leadership Team (ELT); CSO
Eric Axford
Chief sustainability officer

In a wide-ranging conversation, Eric discusses the progress made in the past year, the priorities ahead – and how Suncor’s recent leadership transition impacts the company’s sustainability journey.

When you took on this position, you said the role of the chief sustainability officer (CSO) is to “ensure the organization is living up to its commitments, values and beliefs” when it comes to sustainability. One year in, how do you think it’s going?

It’s a really interesting question. We live in such complex times that, some days, it feels like taking two steps forward and then one step back. But overall, I think we are making significant progress and continue to evolve.

There’ve been regulatory and legislative challenges that demanded a lot of our attention. There’s also been elections and changes in government. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished and the way we continue to work respectfully with governments of all stripes and in all areas of the country.

We’ve also maintained – and, I’d say, even strengthened – our relationship with investors at a time when many of them have expressed concerns about Canadian competitiveness. We’ve stepped forward and outperformed our peers in retaining confidence in our business model and by maintaining our longstanding commitment to sustainability as a core value and a key part of our business strategy.

We have a very compelling story because of the breadth of that strategy; it’s not only about environmental performance, but also about technology and innovation, Indigenous partnerships and even areas like inclusion and diversity, which are not traditionally thought of as part of the sustainability journey. Investors say they like the way we think and the way we act. It gives them confidence that we are looking at the long term and actually thinking about societal needs and Suncor’s role.

On that point, one of Suncor’s key sustainability goals is a social goal that’s focused on strengthening relationships with Indigenous Peoples and communities in Canada. Where have you made progress and what are the opportunities ahead?

The East Tank Farm agreement is the example that’s most often cited, with the Fort McKay and Mikisew Cree First Nations acquiring a combined 49% equity position in a key part of Suncor's Fort Hills infrastructure. That’s the largest investment to date by First Nations communities in Canada and widely acknowledged as a game-changer.

But I’m also very proud of equity agreements we’ve forged with Indigenous Peoples in Ontario and Quebec as well as other partnerships across the country. For example, there are now more than 30 Petro-Canada branded retail sites owned and operated by First Nations.

The goal is to get beyond transactional relationships into real, meaningful long-term engagement – and I think we’re making significant progress. One initiative I’m particularly proud of is the recent launch of an Indigenous Youth Advisory Council, something we’ve been working towards for a while. This is helping to bring the voice of Indigenous youth – the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population – into our organization. That’s opening up a whole new world of possibility and it’s very exciting to see it take root.

Through our social goal, we are finding new ways to work with Indigenous Peoples to promote economic and social reconciliation. This isn’t just about building energy projects; it’s about trying to build bridges between cultures. The opportunities are enormous and we’ve just scratched the surface of what can be accomplished. There’s so much more to be done and I believe it will happen if we continue to listen, learn and work together.

Suncor’s other key sustainability goal is a 30% reduction by 2030 in the total greenhouse gas emissions intensity of the production of its oil and petroleum products. Do you remain confident that can be achieved?

Yes, very much so. We have a robust plan for attaining that goal and we’ve seen good progress in developing and implementing the technology and innovation that will get us there. Setting that goal was hugely important in terms of getting us focused on the enormity of driving an energy company to that kind of efficiency and effectiveness. Again, it’s something that has been a source of confidence for our investors and other stakeholders.

When you compare us to many of our competitors, you can see we are making tangible investments in technology development and deployment – $635 million last year alone, when you include our investments in the digital sphere – to set us up for long-term success as we all make the transition to a lower-carbon economy.

We are also thinking increasingly about where the world is going post-2030. We do see continued demand for petroleum products well into the future. We also see Suncor being agile enough to evolve, transition and transform in ways that will make us a trusted supplier for decades to come. The holistic nature of our technology and innovation strategies is a big reason for that.

When it comes to technology, do investors or other stakeholders sometimes say to you, ‘Okay, so when are we going to see the big, transformative breakthroughs?’

Yes, we get asked that all the time. I respond by pointing first to some of the big breakthroughs we’ve already had in recent years. For one thing, we now have autonomous haul vehicles in place at our mining operations, resulting in safer and more productive mining operations, and improved fuel efficiency. Another example is the PASS (permanent aquatic storage structure) technology being implemented by our tailings reclamation team that’s helping address one of our biggest sustainability challenges.

The next key potential breakthrough areas are the solvents and waterless extraction technologies being developed for our in situ sites that could reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity of our operations by 50 to 70%. These advances are not decades away; they are already in our field of view.

A lot of this is about ensuring Suncor can continue to succeed through what many predict will be a significant energy transition. What are some of the other key elements of that strategy?

We have put a lot of emphasis on scenario-planning. I’d say our capabilities in this area have improved ten-fold over the past five years – and will become even better. The dimensions of uncertainty about the future are as great as they’ve ever been and we need to be planning smartly for a number of eventualities. This will give us the agility to embrace change in a positive way, rather than resist it.

Our annual Climate Risk and Resilience Report is an early and excellent example of this. It’s a way of sharing with our investors and other stakeholders the kind of forward thinking that shapes our business planning and decisions. The report describes how we view carbon as a principal risk and the steps we are taking to mitigate that risk. Our business strategies are tested annually against three energy future scenarios, including one envisioning an aggressive decline in oil demand. Under each of these scenarios, Suncor’s strategy remains resilient. In other words, we would continue to generate strong economic value, address social challenges, and improve environmental performance, while responsibly producing the energy the world needs.

A big part of what global sustainability leadership looks like to investors these days has to do with transparency and disclosure. And I think Suncor is widely acknowledged as a leader in this area. That’s why bringing our carbon disclosures in line with the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) is a pretty natural evolution for us.

We believe additional transparency and disclosure can help us tell our story in a better way and explain some of the good things that are going on in the Canadian energy sector. It can help differentiate Canadian energy for what it is, which is some of the most responsible and trusted energy on the planet.

Suncor has made inclusion and diversity a priority. How are things progressing?

It sometimes feels like our journey on inclusion and diversity is slower than I’d like it to be, but we are working to increase the awareness, capabilities and knowledge of all our employees and leaders so that we advance a more inclusive culture over time. Our Aboriginal Employee Network (now known as Journeys) and our Inclusion and Diversity Council, along with other internal initiatives are opening up conversations and new opportunities to really engage our workforce, our contractors and our suppliers.

I’d also say that Suncor promotes diversity in the way we collaborate with external organizations – including some unlikely partners – on everything from technology to energy policy and social innovation. It’s easy to collaborate with people who think exactly as you do, but we’ve always been deliberate about seeking out and working with people of diverse perspectives. You can see this through our collaborations with groups like Evok Innovations and the Energy Futures Lab, and it’s really been to our mutual benefit. You never know where the next great idea or innovation is going to come from and these kinds of collaborations often impact our view of potential solutions and how we conduct our business.

Suncor recently underwent a leadership transition, with Mark Little taking over as president and CEO from Steve Williams. Will that have an impact on Suncor’s sustainability vision?

Sustainability is so deeply embedded in the culture and values of Suncor that leadership transitions are, in this sense, quite seamless. What I think people will see with Mark is a re-articulation of why Suncor exists, what we contribute to the broader society and how critical technology, innovation and creating social value are to Suncor’s long-term success.

Mark is deeply and personally committed to strengthening relationships with Indigenous Peoples, not just when it comes to Suncor or the energy business, but across our society. At the same time, people are already seeing his support for the triple-bottom-line concept of sustainability that Suncor has long embraced. He believes, as do I, that you can’t meet your environmental goals without a strong economy and you can’t have a strong economy without a healthy environment. To be successful over the long term, you also have to meet community needs and address social challenges.

It’s not about trade-offs between these elements; they are all interconnected. Sustainability is at the root of all we do – and that sets us up for the long term as we move forward in tomorrow’s economy.

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Recommended readings
Social responsibility
Stakeholder and Indigenous relations
Addressing the climate change challenge