GLOBE 2020 Q&A: Jon Mitchell, Vice President, Sustainability at Suncor
As we navigate the future of the environment, energy and the economy, questions remain about the best path forward. We sat down with Jon Mitchell, Vice President, Sustainability at Suncor to get his and Suncor’s perspective.
Suncor is one of Canada’s largest energy companies, and you talk about being committed to developing long-term, sustainable solutions and being part of something that’s bigger than just one company or industry. What does this look like in action?
We recognize that addressing big challenges like climate change requires all of us to work together. That means recognizing that the best solutions come when everyone is at the table and is willing to bring their best ideas forward.
At Suncor, we’ve been focused on sustainability for over two decades. Although we’ve made some tangible advances in environmental performance, we know that there’s more work to be done, especially if the world is to successfully transition to a low-carbon future and still meet growing energy demand.
Transforming our energy system is a complex challenge, but we’re optimistic about the path forward. We are approaching business opportunities by thinking about providing the energy people need in a sustainable way that they want. This isn’t about achieving business success by simply managing the bottom line. It’s about creating business success by helping build a resilient society.
I’m excited about the progress we’re making. For example, we recently announced a new cogeneration facility that will help green Alberta’s electrical grid and avoid the equivalent emissions of 550,000 passenger vehicles per year. We’ve also announced the Forty Mile Wind Project, which will provide the equivalent of 100,000 homes’ electricity use per year. Add to that our completion of Canada’s electric highway, with EV charging stations at our Petro-Canada stations from coast to coast, and you’re beginning to see how we’re embedding sustainability as a value driver in our business decisions.
What would you say to those who say that the oil sands are part of the problem, not the solution?
We as an industry, and as society, need to find a way to take rapid action on climate change while supplying the reliable energy our world has come to expect. The oil sands provide energy continuity and we are working hard to reduce the GHG intensity of oil sands production. At the same time, we are developing low-carbon options such as biofuels and renewables.
Transforming our energy system while continuing to meet the world’s needs will require getting the best out of both traditional and new sources of energy. We must expand upon the expertise and experience that we have gained from traditional resources and apply that knowledge and skill to create the low- carbon future we all want.
Some people might be surprised to learn that the oil sands industry is one of the largest markets for clean technology in Canada. At Suncor, we have decades of expertise, skill and knowledge that is being applied to the emerging energy economy. We’ve been part of the biofuels industry since 2006. An exciting example of the future of the industry is our recent investment in Enerkem, which transforms municipal waste into renewable liquid fuels. It’s exciting to see how expertise we’ve gained in running existing oil sands facilities is being leveraged to drive improved performance in the biofuels industry and help build an emerging market.
What are your biggest challenges? Opportunities? How have things changed in the last five years?
It seems that the last five years have only gotten more complex and the need to take action has become more urgent. As a result, we need to move faster on solutions. One of the big opportunities is through technology. We’re investing in emerging and potentially transformative technologies, including new digital capabilities. We’re increasingly applying digital technologies to improve reliability and environmental performance of our operations. For example, our facilities use real-time data to manage reliability. This means better energy efficiency and fewer emissions. We’re also very excited about our new strategic partnership with Microsoft and where it will take us.
We think there’s good reason for optimism – businesses are mobilizing effort and collaborating like never before, and we’re seeing large investments being focused on innovation and technology. There’s an incredible opportunity for Canada and Canada’s energy industry to lead in the energy transition and the effort to solve the climate change challenge.
Can you talk about some successful examples of collaboration and action on climate in your sector?
We often say that there’s no monopoly on good ideas. For us at Suncor, it means listening and learning from a wide spectrum of individuals and groups. We believe collaboration is key if we’re going to address sustainability-related challenges and opportunities.
We work with many different organizations as part of the path to a better future through technology, including Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN). We’ve also partnered with Evok Innovations, a clean tech fund which combines the pace and creativity of a Silicon Valley start-up with the experience and insight of industry experts to accelerate early-stage technologies.
For us, collaboration doesn’t stop with technology. We’ve also participated in ground-breaking social initiatives like the Energy Futures Lab (EFL), which brings together diverse partners to advance a fit-for-the-future energy system. We’re also listening to and learning from Indigenous communities. An example of the potential that we can realize is the historic $500 million equity partnership that we announced with the Fort MacKay and Mikisew Cree First Nations at our East Tank Farm. We’re hopeful that this is emblematic of how deeper relationships with Indigenous communities can lead to different partnerships in resource development.
What does “energy transformation” mean at Suncor?
To be a successful company in an increasingly complex world, investors, employees, Indigenous communities and partners, suppliers, governments and stakeholders need to see us embedding sustainability into our decision making. More than ever, they want tangible proof of our commitment to care for the earth, improve social systems, and generate economic value.
For us, energy transformation means leveraging technology and innovation. It will require deep listening and collaboration – sometimes with those that we don’t always agree with. And it will mean acknowledging that, while we don’t have all the answers, we’re committed to a better future.
Not only are we focused on our own efforts, we are embarking on a journey of integrating sustainability into our supply chain to serve as a driver of change and progress. Later this month, we are hosting a sustainability forum with our major suppliers. Our goals are to learn from each other and to further embed sustainability practice throughout the supply chain, with a focus on driving down emissions and building creating greater value for our Indigenous partners and suppliers through mutually beneficial relationships and collaboration.
What do you wish people asked you, but don’t?
We think that any good conversation about our energy system starts with being curious about what could be. Asking questions helps start meaningful conversations about the nature of our energy system today and what it will take to make changes going forward. Some examples of questions that would be great to have some dialogue around are:
- “How should we define Canadian leadership in the transition to a low-carbon future?”
- “How should all parts of the economy and regions of the country work together to achieve that vision of leadership?”
How can Canada develop its own unique, national narrative on climate action?
In Canada we have an opportunity to create the space for a different conversation around what leadership looks like for Canada’s transition to a low-carbon future. Canada has a strong, diversified and resource-rich economy; a world-leading financial sector; and excellent capacity for innovation. By harnessing these advantages, Canada can be among the leaders in the global transition to a low-emissions future as a trusted source of climate-smart solutions, expertise and investment.
The opportunity is there if we choose to take advantage of it. Canada can demonstrate leadership through strong domestic actions, global leadership when it comes to emissions performance across all sectors of our economy, and public policy that enables innovation and improved performance.
What does 2050 look like if we’ve got it right?
We’re seeing a lot of governments and businesses making announcements with a 2050 time frame. It’s encouraging to see the level of awareness and ambition increasing when it comes to climate change. In the end, actions will count.
2050 is not a date when utopia arrives, but rather a point we can target to make sure that we are driving meaningful results and that today’s ambitious pragmatism works. Looking back from 2050, success will mean everyone in the world will have access to the energy they need, without having to compromise on social or environmental wellness. That likely will mean increased electrification; opportunities to develop new technologies, products and value chain; and innovation to address the world’s biggest sustainability problems, through collaboration across sectors and circular systems.
The challenge before us – to have ready access to energy that doesn’t cause environmental damage – is a large challenge, but not a challenge that is beyond our collective abilities.