Despite the growing volume of criticism directed at oil producers in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, the oil sands remain a critical energy resource. But Canada's oil and gas industry needs to devote more of its energy to inventing new and better ways to do business, according to one of Calgary's most important voices.
And as society moves to combat greenhouse gases, governments should also consider a sweeping consumer carbon tax, said Rick George, the chief executive officer of Suncor Energy Inc. , Canada's largest publicly traded energy company.
But Suncor remains steadfast in its commitment to the oil sands, Mr. George said, rebuffing market speculation that the company could sell off all or part of its 12-per-cent stake in Syncrude Canada Ltd., after ConocoPhillips fetched $4.65-billion (U.S.) in the sale of its 9-per-cent stake.
Suncor has already sold or announced plans to sell holdings in Trinidad and Tobago, the Netherlands and the North Sea, but "our holdings in the oil sands are a core part of our company over all. We don't have any immediate plans to do anything else, other than the divestments we've talked about," Mr. George told reporters after participating in a panel at an Air & Waste Management Association convention in Calgary.
"That includes Syncrude. We are not putting that up for sale."
In a research note published Monday, RBC Dominion Securities analyst Greg Pardy wrote that "based on our dialogue with the company, we think a part of that interest could be sold over time at the right price." Mr. Pardy declined to respond to Mr. George's statement.
But as Suncor continues to pursue the oil sands, Mr. George called on the oil and gas industry to spend more on the technology that will help both trim costs and buff the industry's environmental image.
"The energy industry ... needs to build more research and development into business models," he said. "The level of investments and deployment of new technology should be a key measure of our success on a go-forward basis."
According to Statistics Canada, oil and gas extraction companies spend 0.5 per cent of revenues on industrial research, well below the Canadian average of 1.8 per cent. The percentage of oil and gas companies spending on R&D - 1.7 per cent - also lags the Canadian average of 2.1 per cent, and places it far behind manufacturers of foods, beverages and forest products.
Mr. George, however, bristled at suggestions that oil and gas companies are laggards in research spending. Government statistics don't capture the amount of innovation that happens in the field, he said.
He also took aim at government for unfairly burdening oil sands with the cost of carbon emissions. Alberta's current greenhouse gas policy, which extends a $15-a-tonne toll to companies that don't meet emissions intensity targets, amounts to a "tax on industry," he said.
"I'm in favour of a carbon tax, but only if we go to a place where we tax all forms of carbon, and that includes both production of energy and the consumption of energy," he said. "I know politically that's a little bit more difficult. ... But if we're going to price carbon, we need to price the carbon the same across the board."