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Illustration of Rick George, founder of Novo Investment Group and former CEO of Suncor Energy (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Rick George, founder of Novo Investment Group and former CEO of Suncor Energy (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

Rick George: The reincarnation of Mr. Oil Sands Add to ...

A desire to “hopefully move the dialogue a little bit on the environmental side” of the oil sands was one of his key motivators in writing about the industry. There’s some settling of scores, too, including a scalding attack on James Cameron, the helicopter-owning director who came to the oil sands to preach hydrocarbon restraint. Mr. George calls him a hypocrite, and has choice words for the media, who “fondle themselves over these Hollywood types coming up out of the U.S. and trying to lecture Canadians on how to live.”

He doesn’t have much time, either, for those who would stand in front of the Northern Gateway project to bring Alberta crude to the West Coast for export: “The right thing should be done for Canada. This can’t be a system where the minority view controls everything,” he says. Besides, he charges, northern B.C. communities suffer their own share of conflicted viewpoints: “If you look at the number of the aboriginal communities on that West Coast that are opposed – they move diesel by water in and out,” he says. “So there’s a lot of hypocrisy to the whole system.”

He tenders his own solution to some environmental woes. Politicians, he says, could have done a lot of good by quickly setting a carbon tax at $5 a tonne and pouring the money into urban rapid transit. “Governments are behind the curve,” he argues.

Mr. George doubts the root science behind much of the environmental movement: The finding that the consumption of fossil fuels is warming the earth. Investing in emissions reduction makes good business sense for companies attempting to stay ahead of the political winds and cut energy costs. But personally, he has doubts.

“It’s not a debate that I’d really care to get into because for a lot of people it’s like religion. What I don’t really like is when people say the science is settled,” he says.

He adds: “This globe has been extremely warm and it’s been extremely cold over the last several hundred thousands of years. So to think you’re going to make that much difference in an overall cycle – I’m skeptical.”

An appreciation for cycles, it turns out, is fundamental to Mr. George’s understanding of the world. One of his most-lauded moves was the decision to pour money, two decades ago, into an oil sands operation drenched in red ink at a time of high operating costs and low oil prices. So why did he do it? He makes it clear in his book: “No one in the business asked me how I could justify committing the company to such high spending when prices were so depressed. If they had, I would have answered: cycles.”

Oil prices go down. Then they go up. Reading the inflection points is an art, because some swings are lengthy and others are brief. Mr. George attributes his appreciation for cycles to his interest in macroeconomics. He attributes his ability to see them coming to something far less academic: intuition. Even early in his career, “I always did have this thing where I was feeling I could make better decisions than some of the ones [other executives] made.”

He was not always right. An attempt to extract oil from underground shale in Australia went sufficiently wrong that Suncor wrote off $100-million. Its adventures in Syria and Libya – the latter of which resulted in another writedown, this one $514-million – weren’t great either. The decisions to stay in those countries, which Suncor entered after acquiring Petrocan properties there, made sense at the time. In retrospect, “obviously it probably would have been better if we tried to sell.”

Yet Mr. George says a finely tuned gut is more often right than wrong. “If your intuition is sufficiently strong,” he writes, “and you’re brave enough to assume an attitude contrary to the rest of the herd, that’s the route you follow.”

 

The smell of opportunity

 

Mr. George orders the seafood cakes, served with a roasted-red-pepper aoili and pickled vegetables. This seems like a reasonable time to ask the question: What kind of cycle are we in now?

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