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President and CEO Steve Williams of Suncor Energy addresses shareholders during the company's annual general meeting in Calgary, Alberta, April 30, 2015.Todd Korol/Reuters

Suncor Energy Inc. needs to position itself to be the "last guy standing" in a world of weak oil prices and growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions, chief executive officer Steve Williams said on Tuesday.

Mr. Williams, head of Canada's largest oil producer, is attending the climate summit this week in Paris, where he is looking to rehabilitate the battered image of the oil-sands sector.

In an interview, he sounded remarkably upbeat for an oil executive who faces depressed crude prices, new provincial regulations that will cap carbon emissions from the oil sands, and a growing international determination to get off fossil fuels.

He acknowledged that the industry is in a fight for its life and must innovate aggressively to reduce both its costs and its greenhouse-gas emissions. Given the Alberta government's recently announced cap on oil-sands emissions, it will have to dramatically drive down emissions per barrel through the deployment of new technology in order to increase production in the medium and longer term, he said.

"But my challenge is: Let's be the last guy standing," he said. "Let's be the place of choice that the world comes to because Canada is such a fantastic place to do business: It's innovative; it's got new technology; it's got the rule of law; it's got great regulation, and it's got companies that are willing to invest there."

The Suncor chief executive said he is "busting the myth" that the company is a high-cost producer. Its operating costs now a run just above $20 (U.S.) a barrel, he said, and the company primarily receives international prices for its upgraded crude.

"We have made cash this year while virtually no oil company has made cash," he said.

While an investment in new production will require higher prices, he insisted that the long lifespan of projects make them more attractive than high-cost plays that have fast depletion rates.

Mr. Williams is a member of the official Canadian delegation in Paris, joining federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, several premiers and prominent environmentalists in regular briefings on the negotiations. On Tuesday, he met with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, the noted climate-change campaigner and opponent of the oil industry.

Mr. Williams said he has been "pleasantly surprised" by Canada's reception in Paris, where delegates have noted the government's engagement and the carbon-pricing policies of provinces such as Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and now Alberta.

On Tuesday, he joined 60 other global business leaders at an event organized by the United Nations Global Compact, which brings together chief executives who commit to sustainable business practices.

CEOs from oil companies BP PLC, Statoil ASA, Total SA and Saudi Arabian Oil Co. are also members of the Global Compact, as are multinational giants Google Inc., PepsiCo Inc. and General Electric Co.

In opening the session, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the business leaders are critical actors in the drive to reduce emissions and avert the worst impact of climate change.

Mr. Kerry said the transition to a low-carbon world is "the greatest economic opportunity the world has ever seen."

Other business leaders say investment needs to be diverted away from fossil fuels and into renewable-energy sources.

But Mr. Williams said the impending death of the oil sands has been greatly exaggerated. He insisted that companies such as Suncor will be able to cut emissions per barrel and increase production while respecting the cap being imposed by the NDP government in Alberta.

"There is still considerable room" under the cap, he said.

"I'm looking at new innovations and new technology where we could be significantly and materially reducing the carbon footprint of the projects. What that does, it earns you more space.

"So the cap incentivizes the industry to really get into gear now around energy efficiency and in the deployment of new technology."

Some environmental groups still see the oil sands as a major part of the climate problem, and are not convinced that Suncor and the other producers will be able to drive down emissions while increasing production.

"Its emissions on a per-barrel basis are higher than conventional oil so it's not comparable from a climate perspective," said Dale Marshall, head of energy and climate programs for the Toronto-based Environmental Defence.

Mr. Marshall said the global effort to cut emissions will reduce the demand for crude over time, and leave the oil sands vulnerable.

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