The first corporation to develop Canada’s oil sands in the 1960s, Suncor Energy continues to hold a dominant position as Canada’s largest energy company, and the world’s largest bitumen producer. Based in Calgary, Alberta, Suncor has operations that span the oil and gas commodity chain, specializing in conventional and in situ oil sands production in the Athabasca region.
Suncor holds a unique position in Canada’s climate mitigation landscape: not only is it the largest producer of the most emissions-intensive fossil fuel, Suncor is also one of the most outspoken oil and gas representatives when it comes to advocating market-based climate actions. Suncor was one of the four major oil companies whose CEOs stood beside Premier Rachel Notley in November 2015 as she outlined Alberta’s Climate Plan, and it has a track record of funding environmental education and renewable energy technology. Yet, despite its “green” reputation, Suncor’s unparalleled environmental impacts continue to warrant serious concern, putting it on our list as a top emitter.
Head office: Calgary, Alberta
Countries of operation: Canada, UK, US, Libya, Norway
Assets: C$89.5 billion26
Revenue: C$32 billion27
Reserves: 4,717,000,000 oil bbl; 21,000 gas MMcf28
Production: oil, natural gas liquids and oil sands: 615,500 bbl/d; natural gas: 11.400 MMcf/d; total: 617,400 boe/d29
—note that these totals do not include Suncor’s 58 per cent stake in Syncrude
Memberships: Business Council of Canada, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Fuels Association, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, International Emissions Trading Association, Mining Association of Canada Canadian31 Council for Aboriginal Business, International Association of Oil and Gas Producers, Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada.
Actua, Alberta Council for Environmental Education, Energy Futures Lab, Natural Step Canada, Reconciliation Canada, Wood Buffalo Community Foundation, Women Building Futures, Youth Fusion, Sarnia Centennial Park, Memorial University—Centre for Social Enterprise, Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow (QUEST), The Walrus Foundation32
Suncor was founded in 1919 as the Sun Company of Canada1—a subsidiary of the American company, Sunoco. In 1979, Sun Company amalgamated its Canadian interests with Great Canadian Oil Sands to form Suncor.2 In 1995 Suncor became an independent public company when Sun Oil—and hence its Sunoco owner—divested its ownership of the company.3
While the mainstay of Suncor’s oil and gas operations can be found in Alberta, the company has various fossil fuel assets throughout the world.
The oil sands segment of Suncor’s business is located in the Athabasca oil sands and is focused on bitumen extraction through mining and in situ operations. The mining portion of Suncor’s business includes the Millennium and North Steepbank mining and extraction operations, and their upgrading facilities.4 In situ projects include Firebag, and MacKay River.5
Suncor participates in joint ventures in other oil sands projects—acting as the primary operator of the the Fort Hills mining project, and holding a smaller stake in the Joslyn North mining prospect—both in partnership with Paris-based Total SA.6 Suncor also holds majority ownership of the joint venture Syncrude, one of Canada’s largest oil sands operators, with Suncor’s own interests in the project producing approximately 205,590 bbl/d of sweet synthetic crude oil.7
Suncor also holds significant natural gas assets; however, a large divestiture of its conventional gas assets in 2013 depleted its gas stocks significantly. The company continues to hold shares in unconventional gas fields, including the Montney formation in northeastern British Columbia (BC) and Wilson Creek in Alberta. In March 2018, Suncor bought a 37 per cent stake in Canbriam Energy, a mid-sized producer active in the Montney formation.8
Suncor’s exploration and production business includes offshore operations on Canada’s east coast and in the North Sea, and onshore operations in North America and Syria. The company also has several exploration licenses offshore in both the United Kingdom and Norway, in addition to interests in the Sirte Basin in Libya and the Ebla gas extraction site in Syria.9
The company’s downstream operations include several refineries across North America, including Edmonton, Montréal, Sarnia and Commerce City, Colorado. Suncor markets its petrochemicals to retail, commercial and industrial customers through various venues including its Petro-Canada and Sunoco branded dealers in Canada, other retail locations in Colorado and bulk sales channels in Canada.
Suncor commits large amounts of resources to maintain its reputation as a “green” oil sands company, and it currently sits at the vanguard of Canadian oil companies that publicly position themselves as ethical extractors. In 2015, Maclean’s named Suncor one of Canada’s top 50 socially responsible companies based on both environmental performance and corporate social responsibility.10
In 2016, Suncor supported a shareholder resolution headed by NEI Investments which asked them to “provide ongoing reporting on how it is assessing, and ensuring, long-term corporate resilience in a future low-carbon economy.”11
As a fossil fuel company, its support for the motion was relatively unprecedented. Suncor’s first response outlined a number of different climate trajectories which could impact its business model. Under the most severely restrained global carbon budget scenario, Suncor projected that it will be able to develop its most valuable reserves, suggesting that since oil demand will continue to rise up until 2040, its long-term oil deposits in the oil sands afford it with a “competitive advantage” against smaller or more uncertain reserves, stating that “the very long operating life and low decline rate of our assets are, paradoxically, a major advantage under a scenario of either declining demand for crude oil and a correspondingly lower oil price, or an extended period of uncertainty and volatility in investment and commodity markets.12 Evidently, Suncor appears adamant to develop its oil and gas reserves well beyond the 2 degree Celsius limit.
Suncor justifies its commitment to long-term oil and gas development by way of its involvement with initiatives to reduce oil sands emissions through technology. In 2017 it reported investing around $350 million in technology development. In 2016, Suncor partnered with the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance and Cenovus Energy to create Evok Innovations, a fund that provides capital to develop new technologies that reduce process emissions from oil and gas.13
Not surprisingly, then, Suncor’s carbon-reduction targets are based on emissions intensity rather than absolute emissions, and it has committed to reduce this intensity by 30 per cent by 2030.14 The company has also launched a number of plans and policies to reduce tailings impacts and increase water-monitoring practices, and it invests in renewable power generation projects such as wind and cogeneration infrastructure, which utilizes steam produced in oil sands production.15 Meanwhile, the company is a member of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, an organization that funds technology to reduce carbon emissions, including carbon capture and storage technologies,16 and the proposed carbon capture and storage initiative ICO2N (Integrated CO2 Network).18
Suncor’s numerous funding ties with environmental education programs—most of them based in Alberta—suggest cause for concern. Through its granting program, the Suncor Energy Foundation, the company funds the Alberta Council for Environmental Education,19 a program targeted toward shaping “energy literacy” content in the Alberta education curriculum, as well as a group called “GreenLearning” that offers ready-made lesson plans for Canadian teachers on energy issues, including the benefits of the oil sands.20 The fund also directly contributes to the Pembina Institute (an environmental non-governmental organization), contributing to its “Green Energy Futures” program, along with funding a joint initiative between Pembina, the Banff Centre and the Government of Alberta called the “Energy Futures Lab,” described as a “multi-sector collaboration designed to help shape Alberta’s energy future and strengthen its position and reputation as a global energy leader.”21
In 2014, dozens of protesters at Petro-Canada gas stations rallied to bring attention to Suncor’s record of environmental degradation.22 Their protest specifically targeted the tailings ponds created as a result of Suncor’s oil sands operations, which, by 2017, totalled 300 million cubic metres.23 There is no proven method of remediation to address the environmental impacts of oil sands tailings. In 2017, Suncor submitted its first tailings pond treatment strategy, which was subsequently approved by the Alberta Energy Regulator.24 The report draws on an experimental method to bury untreated tailings in mined-out pits before capping them with water, creating what’s called an “end-pit lake.” The AER’s approval of the plan provides the company with a 70-year window to complete it.25
Learn more about Suncor at LittleSis.org
The intent of the Corporate Mapping Project database is to engage Canadians in a conversation about the role of the fossil fuel sector in our democracy, by “mapping” how power and influence play out in the oil, gas and coal industries of BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Suncor’s Syria and Libya production was suspended in 2011 because of political instability. “Exploration and Production,” Suncor, accessed April 30th, 2019, http://www.suncor.com/about-us/exploration-and-production.
While leaning heavily on technological solutions, the company also supports carbon pricing schemes. Suncor signed onto the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition and is a long-time supporter of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, an organization developing policy on the implementation of carbon pricing. In its recommendations on climate policy, Suncor publicly supports a moderate carbon price while emphasizing the danger that more extensive carbon fees could present for its overall profits, or “competitiveness” on a global scale.17 “Suncor’s Report on Sustainability.”