Suncor CEO: Canada’s best export could be oil

Suncor CEO Steve Williams wants you to forget about Justin Bieber. Instead, the executive said Tuesday, the U.S. should be more excited about a different Canadian export: energy.

The U.S. and Canadian economies “are closely integrated, and we want that energy relationship to grow,” Williams told delegates at IHS CERAWeek. He noted that every dollar America spends on Canadian oil flows back to the United States in other trade.

But a major fight has erupted over the marquee project for delivering Canadian oil to U.S. refineries, TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The Obama administration’s State Department is tasked with deciding whether the $7 billion project is in the national interest, but a verdict appear unlikely before June.

Activists opposed to the pipeline have mounted high-profile protests against the project, locking themselves to overhead projectors, standing in the path of bulldozers clearing the way for Keystone XL’s southern leg and tying themselves to the White House gate in an act of civil disobedience.

Environmentalists say Keystone XL would contribute to climate change by expanding the marketplace for oil sands crude harvested in Canada through strip mining and energy-intensive steam-based techniques. Industry backers counter that the difference in greenhouse gas emissions between Canadian oil sands products and the heavy crude it would displace in Gulf Coast refineries is negligible.

And the State Department concluded on Friday that the oil sands would be developed even if President Barack Obama rejected a permit for Keystone XL, as companies turn to other pipelines and rail to transport crude.

Williams made an impassioned plea for toning down the heated conversation about Keystone XL.

“We have to get past some of the polarized debates we see today,” Williams said. “Whether it’s climate change policy, the low carbon fuel standard, pipelines or what source of energy we prefer, more and more of us are focused on staking out positions.”

“We seem preoccupied with what we are against — dirty coal, tar sands, hazardous nuclear waste, (fracturing), and yes, even bird and bat killing around wind turbines,” Williams added. “In the midst of trying to prove who’s right and who’s wrong, I’m troubled…we may find ourselves in a worse position than where we started.”

Echoing a major theme on the first major day of the week-long CERA conference, Williams insisted that Canadian crude would get to the United States, even if Keystone XL is never built.

“Make no mistake, oil will find its way to the market,” he said. “It just might get there by different means, which in the end may turn out to be more carbon intensive.”

Industry leaders at CERAWeek have balanced that talk by insisting that even though rail can ferry Canadian and U.S. crude around North America, pipelines are essential over the long term.

Ultimately, Williams said, a diverse array of transport options is a good thing for industry. Bitumen harvested from the oil sands is “probably going to travel by all sorts of transportation options, pipeline and rail,” he said. “We think you’ll see the industry supporting a broad range of options.”

Williams also made a pitch for the oil industry to step up its PR game. “We’ve got to work harder,” he said. “The industry recognizes there are some things we have to do. We have to be supporting the broader solutions (on environmental issues, and) have to demonstrate…we are at the environmental edge, leading best practices.”