What do you see as the single most significant challenge facing oil sands companies today?
There are a lot of challenges, but if I had to pick one, it’s people. There aren’t enough qualified people in Alberta, or Canada for that matter, to meet growth plans not only at Devon, but for the oil sands industry as a whole over the next 20 to 30 years. Frankly, that’s a challenge for the western world in general. There aren’t enough technical graduates coming out of universities. The folks who have been in the business for a long time, such as me, are getting older. That baby boomer growth wedge is reaching retirement, and there’s an inadequate supply to backfill the gap.
How do you see that hurdle being addressed?
There’s no easy answer, and there’s no short-term answer. There’s a multifaceted opportunity to address it. Immigration is one factor (Immigration) Minister (Jason) Kenney is helping to address that aspect by targeting foreign workers – particularly professionals – and making it easier for qualified candidates to enter the country. But perhaps even more important are the skilled trades that are required. Education is another aspect; expanding the number of places in Canadian education programs and providing the funding that goes with it. We must also improve the knowledge and understanding of the career opportunities for people in the skilled trades. There are some excellent careers in the skilled trades that are both financially rewarding and challenging.
What is Devon doing to attract and keep the staff it needs to operate successfully?
For Devon, it’s about the culture of the organization. Compensation is good in this industry and pretty comparable across all the organizations. So what we aim for among our employees is pride of ownership in where they work. Because they know Devon is totally committed to ethical operations, they can hold their heads high knowing that, together, we are meeting or exceeding all the standards and always looking to improve. Devon employees get the opportunity and responsibility to contribute to meaningful projects that help build their experience and careers. One of our core values is “Be a good neighbour,” and another is “Do the right thing.” I think those two values simplify our approach. Our staff can look their neighbours or their kids in the eye and say, yeah, we do it well and we have a lot to be proud of.
“We always need to be upping our game, and continuous improvement is what we strive for, not only on the environmental side of things, but in our business in general. We need to listen to what the public has to say and what their expectations are in order to earn a social licence to operate.”
What do you see as the role of the oil sands in addressing global demand for energy over the next 50 years?
The oil sands have a key role to play in providing energy for the world. If we look forward 50 years, the consensus seems to be that energy growth is expected to increase substantially. Most of that growth will be driven from non-OECD countries as they improve their standards of living – and that requires all forms of energy. In that time frame, oil will continue to play an important role, even as renewables become more prevalent and more economic. Canada’s oil sands represent approximately half of the investable oil around the world. By that, I mean oil that is not in the hands of national oil companies or governments that don’t allow access to non-government organizations. That’s important because it provides a lot more flexibility for market forces to determine what will get developed.
Oil sands operators are under constant pressure from stakeholders to reduce their impact on the environment and ensure that they have a social licence to operate. How do you think the industry and Devon are doing?
We always need to be upping our game, and continuous improvement is what we strive for, not only on the environmental side of things, but in our business in general. We need to listen to what the public has to say and what their expectations are in order to earn a social licence to operate. I think the industry as a whole – and Devon certainly – recognizes that as an important piece of our business. We all have kids or grandkids, and we want them to be proud of what we do as well. There is a balance between the environmental impact of development and the economic impact that benefits us all by supplying the energy that’s required to meet the growing need in Canada and around the world. No energy comes without some costs, but the idea is to get the right balance that everybody can find acceptable.
How do you feel the industry is doing on the environmental front?
You really need to ask the communities in which we operate, and our neighbours, but I think we’re doing a good job and are always seeking to improve. There’s an unprecedented level of collaboration between Canadian oil sands companies to share knowledge and technology to mitigate environmental impacts because we all recognize the need to accelerate our pace of improvement in this area.
Some oil companies, including Devon, are forecasting significant growth in the years ahead. What are the challenges that go with it?
For us as operators, it’s recruiting and retaining qualified staff to operate our projects. We are in a very competitive environment, and we operate in remote locations. Having qualified people to staff them is a concern for us. Secondly, the cumulative impact of all these projects needs to be considered. The Alberta government’s Lower Athabasca Regional Plan tries to look at the cumulative effects of projects in the entire region. It’s an important piece of work aimed at helping the industry manage its projects holistically and the government acting as stewards of the land.