As world leaders meet for climate agreements, West of Centre had a rare interview with a major Alberta oil and gas CEO on the direction of the industry, politics, the Allan inquiry, and the future of energy in Canada.
Calgary-based Cenovus Energy CEO Alex Pourbaix sat down with West of Centre host Kathleen Petty for an interview.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Question: We've got COP26, and we have Canada going in with ambitious climate targets. We have an environment minister who says he wants to do more, faster. What does that mean for you and your industry?
Note: COP26 is the Conference of Parties, which meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up in the early 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements. This year's conference starts Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland.
Answer: Our industry, I think, has been very supportive about the need to reduce emissions and the benefits associated with reducing emissions.
At the same time, we have to make sure that we have reliable and cost-effective energy. As we talk about this transition, we're going to have some pretty difficult discussions about what is possible and what it will take to get there. Any credible people who talk about energy, and energy consultants, everyone that I have seen has shown that oil and gas are going to remain a huge part of the mix for decades to come.
Q: When you say there needs to be difficult discussions, is that to say that what you think is possible is not necessarily what the federal government thinks is possible?
A: No. When most people think of this energy transition they think it means we're going to move from oil and gas to renewables. I would make an observation that most people would appreciate that moving from an incredibly dense, cheap-to-produce and reliable energy source to an unreliable energy source that is much less dense in energy and with present technology, is very expensive and difficult to store … That's a challenge.
I think there is going to be a transition, but it's not going to be a transition off oil and gas. It's going to be a transition to oil and gas that has much lower emissions because I just think the role they play in our modern world right now is very difficult to replicate or replace.
The anti-Alberta inquiry
Q: I want to ask you about the Allan inquiry and Alberta's energy war room — this is supposed to be about supporting your industry. I want to know how can this help you?
Note: The Allan inquiry refers to a $3.5-million provincial inquiry into foreign funding of alleged anti-Alberta energy activities, headed by Steve Allan. Alberta energy war room refers to Alberta's Canadian Energy Centre.
A: Honestly I didn't really pay a lot of attention to that. To the point you made, there's a lot of challenges facing our industry. We've had a lot of opposition and I think they're effective. I think they've been reasonably well funded. None of that's really a surprise to me that there are some people opposed to the industry who are coming after the industry.
I'm just not really interested in kind of going to sit in judgment on this. I think the far better thing for our industry to do, and certainly for Cenovus, is really to focus on telling our own story.
Q: You did donate, I know you've acknowledged this, you donated to Vivian Krause, and she was essentially seen as the inspiration behind this inquiry. Do you regret that?
Note: The Allan inquiry was an election promise by Premier Jason Kenney, who was intrigued by independent research done by Krause, a Vancouver funding researcher.
A: That may be possible, I'm actually not aware of that, but I've certainly followed what Vivian is doing.
Q: Were you a supporter of hers? I read it actually in Press Progress. It was from a couple of years ago, but they said you acknowledge that it was a personal donation.
Note: Press Progress reported in 2019 that Pourbaix donated to a crowdfunded film Krause was working on.
A: Oh yeah. I might have done something, and I'm guessing if I did, it was a very, very small, small amount of money.
I've certainly followed Vivian. The one thing I would say about our industry, historically, it's an industry that has probably not spent enough time talking, or on our communications strategy.
We've been very much focused on the production of our commodities and doing it as safely and efficiently as we can. And I see Vivian as someone who has been out trying to balance that story. I'm certainly not opposed to the work that she's doing.
Q: But at the end of the day, I gather you don't think that the Allan inquiry, the war room is exactly helping your cause — that you think the industry itself needs to do more advocating for itself.
A: I very much think the industry needs to do that. Advocating is part of it, but I think the really important part is not so much advocating, but demonstrating that we are serious about improving our environmental performance.
Q:Two ministers with the biggest influence on your industry, have done a myriad of interviews — Jonathan Wilkinson, minister of natural resources, Steven Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change — the premise of many of the interviews, the starting point seems to be oil and gas, man, they're going to be shaking in their boots in downtown Calgary. I'm curious to know, have your ears been burning?
A: I obviously had a really good working relationship with Minister Wilkinson and we always had a great working relationship with Minister O'Regan when they were in their previous portfolios.
I just have always taken the position that it doesn't matter what industry I'm working in, we don't have the ability to pick our ministers, we work with the government of the day.
My experience was the previous ministers O'Regan and Wilkinson, we've had very productive relationships. We're able to work together well. I expect we'll be able to forge the same kind of relationships with Minister Guilbeault when that time comes. My focus is always when I talk to the federal government is making sure that we have environmental and energy policy that really addresses the concerns about climate change while also, we have to support jobs, economic contribution.
LISTEN | To the full interview with Alex Pourbaix on the CBC's West of Centre's Oct. 29 podcast: