Suncor Energy has an image problem that seems incurable. The Alberta oil sands giant produces vast amounts of synthetic crude oil, a product that comes with a rather frightening carbon footprint. As the oil sands expand, Suncor will become an ever-bigger target for climate-change activists and green-tinged politicians.
Even Justin Trudeau, who may or may not survive as prime minster after next week’s election, once said that Canada should “phase out” the oil sands.
What can Suncor do? Here’s a radical idea: Get into uranium.
Nobody talks much about uranium anymore. The naturally radioactive metal is associated as much with disaster, because of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, as it is with clean energy. The Fukushima nightmare rattled the electricity generation industry to the point that Germany decided to end its entire nuclear-energy program. Today, only a few courageous sustainable-energy advocates in the Western world are calling for a nuclear-energy revival.
Yet, nuclear energy has not been given a death sentence. Germany aside, there is in fact a nuclear renaissance under way, with China leading the charge. At last count, about 55 nuclear reactors were under construction in various parts of the world, although mostly in Asia. And each of them is desperate for uranium supplies.
Which brings us to Canada. The world’s richest undeveloped uranium reserve lies just northeast of Fort McMurray, the centre of the oil sands operations, in Saskatchewan’s Southwest Athabasca Basin. A Vancouver company called NexGen Energy is developing the reserve. The uranium grades are so high – 20 per cent or more in some spots – that its Arrow mine would have the potential to supply more than one-fifth of the global uranium market, based on world production in 2018, according to the company’s literature.
NexGen – market value $640-million – is listed in Toronto and Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, through his CEF Holdings, a familiar name in Canadian energy investments, is the biggest shareholder. NexGen’s board of directors includes former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall and Sybil Veenman, a former senior vice-president and general counsel of Toronto’s Barrick Gold.
The company plans to deliver its environmental assessment statement this time next year. If it receives an operating licence, it will spend about $1.2-billion to develop Arrow, whose average production would be more than 25 million pounds of uranium (U308) a year. In an interview, NexGen’s Australian chief executive, Leigh Curyer, called the Southwest Athabasca Basin a “geological freak” because of its unusually high uranium grades. Its potential is enormous.
Canada traditionally has been one of the world’s biggest suppliers of uranium; as late as five years ago, it was the world’s top supplier. But weak uranium prices have crimped global production. In Canada, the only uranium mine still in production is Cameco’s Cigar Lake (the Saskatchewan company, one of the world’s largest uranium producers, also has operations in Kazakhstan).
Global shortages are inevitable as new reactors open for business and existing reactors replenish their stockpiles. The United States alone consumes 50 million pounds of uranium a year, almost all of which is imported. The reassessment of nuclear energy as a clean-energy source is under way, driven by the realization that solar and wind power alone cannot bring down carbon emissions fast enough to prevent global average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels – the goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
As far as anyone can tell, Suncor has zero interest in uranium. While it does have a small renewable energy portfolio – it has four wind-power sites – it is an oil company that is entirely dedicated to exploiting the oil sands as efficiently as possible. But as the climate protests inspired by Greta Thunberg, who attended a rally in Edmonton on Friday, Extinction Rebellion and others expand, and as Green parties everywhere gain prominence, Suncor will come under domestic and global pressure to green itself up.
If Suncor can dabble in wind energy, dabbling in another form of clean energy – uranium – does not seem so far-fetched. Note that Suncor calls itself Suncor Energy, not Suncor Oil, implying that it’s open to projects other than gouging oily guck out of the ground. Suncor is also a mining company – the oil sands are mining operations. Vancouver’s Teck Resources, whose focus is coal, copper and zinc, has an oil sands project precisely because it considers the oil sands a mining business, one that happens to produce energy. Mining uranium and mining oil might not require completely different skill sets.
Potentially catastrophic climate change is bound to produce a radical shift on how developed and developing economies produce energy. While the fossil-fuel era is far from over, oil producers will be pushed into becoming broad-based “energy” companies, just as electricity-generating companies were pushed into ditching coal in favour of natural gas and wind and solar power. For some electricity producers, the switch from black to green was remarkably successful.
Imagine if Suncor were to invest in NexGen, partner with it or launch its own operation in the uranium-rich Southwest Athabasca Basin. Some shareholders would be shocked and sell their holdings. Others would welcome the diversification into a source of clean energy that, out of necessity, seems destined to play a crucial role in climate-friendly energy supplies. For Suncor, such a move would be a credible form of greenwashing that could extend its social and political operating licence well into the future.