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Former president and CEO of Suncor, Mark Little, in the company's headquarters in Calgary on Feb. 27, 2020.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Former Suncor Energy Inc. SU-T chief executive Mark Little made it very clear earlier this year that the buck stopped with him when it came to the company’s safety record.

“As CEO, the accountability for safety and operational excellence is with me. Period. I own this,” he told investors on a results call.

He made his comments in the wake of the Jan. 6 death of a worker at the company’s oil-sands Base Plant operation in Northern Alberta, after the heavy haul truck the worker was driving rear-ended another vehicle. The collision also sent two workers to hospital with minor injuries.

On Thursday, another Suncor worker died, this time a contractor who was struck by equipment at the company’s Base Mine.

The next day, Mr. Little resigned as president and CEO of the oil-sands giant.

Kris Smith, the company’s executive vice-president of downstream operations, was named interim CEO and the company has launched a global search for Mr. Little’s replacement.

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Mr. Little joined Suncor in 2008 as its senior vice-president of strategic growth and energy trading before becoming the senior vice-president of integration when Suncor merged with Petro‑Canada. He was appointed CEO in 2019.

His successor will inherit one of Canada’s largest fossil-fuel producers. But it’s also a company that, since 2014, has reported 12 deaths at its sites – more than all of its oil-sands rivals combined.

Mr. Little had already beefed up the leadership team to focus more on safety after the January death. In May, he said the company was also conducting a third-party safety review and incorporating new fatigue-management and collision-avoidance technology at its oil-sands sites to reduce risk to workers and contractors.

The spate of recent fatalities had caught the attention of activist investor Elliott Investment Management, which earlier this spring pointed a finger at Suncor’s safety record as part of its case for an overhaul of the company’s board and management.

Elliott went public on April 28 with a letter to Suncor directors containing a swath of proposals it said would add $30-billion to the energy company’s market capitalization. It also wanted an executive leadership review, an overhaul of Suncor’s operational and safety culture, and to replace several directors at the company with five of its own choosing.

Elliott declined to comment on Mr. Little’s departure on Sunday.

Deborah Yedlin, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, said Sunday that along with improving the company’s safety processes, Suncor’s next leader will need to focus on operational efficiency and extracting the most value from the company’s assets.

“You can’t have somebody who comes in and doesn’t understand the oil sands, the politics, the regulatory environment. That’s absolutely critical,” she told The Globe and Mail.

But at the end of the day, she said, boards have to hold leaders accountable.

“Having fatalities is something you just can’t tolerate,” she said.

While the company’s safety record was a point of contention, Mr. Little was seen as a leader on environmental issues in the patch.

Suncor, under his leadership, was a driving force behind the Pathways Alliance, a group of oil-sands producers working to achieve net-zero emissions oil-sands production by 2050.

Mr. Little’s voice will also be missed in Ottawa, Ms. Yedlin said, where he was a well-respected industry leader.

“He was well-liked in the company,” she said. “He was seen as someone who cared, was forward-looking, really smart and tried to balance everything – whether it was the company, strategy, family life.”

At a Calgary Stampede event on the weekend, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said she was saddened when she heard the news about Mr. Little.

“He was just such a strong leader. He was instrumental with the Pathways initiative,” Ms. Savage told The Globe.

“He had a visionary approach to getting the oil-sands to net zero. He really has changed the conversation on energy across North America, and globally. It’s really opened the door to having a realistic, honest conversation about oil and gas.”

Operational problems at the company’s Syncrude mine and Firebag operation together led to Suncor’s production falling by approximately 195,000 barrels a day in the latter half of December.

As a result, overall annual production in 2021 came in about 1 per cent below the company’s target of 740,000 b/d.

The issues at Syncrude and Firebag were both attributed in part to the deep freeze that blanketed Alberta in mid-December.

Both Syncrude and Firebag returned to normal production levels by mid-January, and in May, Suncor reported the highest quarterly dividend in the company’s history, buoyed largely by a surge in oil and gas prices because of global supply fears related to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Suncor has not made Mr. Little available for an interview since it announced his departure.

With a report from Kelly Cryderman

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