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Rick George has a plan to save Canada's oil sands brand

Rick George: “We should not have an energy policy in Canada dictated by a dysfunctional Washington”

Markian Lozowchuk

The oil sands have been pilloried by Neil Young as a new Hiroshima, by environmentalists as toxic "tar sands" and by politicians as a source of "dirty oil." Can this brand be saved? We put it to the man who could be called the father of the modern-day oil sands. Born in Colorado, now a Canadian citizen, Rick George ran Suncor for 20 years and built it into Canada's biggest bitumen producer. Retired from Suncor for 18 months, he heads his Calgary investment company, Novo.

Is it possible to recover from the Neil Young attack?
I get the Neil Young thing—and yet the industry has moved a lot. It has done a terrific job of continuous improvement in using less water and less energy, the reduction of CO2 and land reclamation. But this business has got very politicized in the United States.

So what can you do?
The industry needs to keep the Canadian public onside. If you did a real, unbiased poll, most Canadians would agree the oil sands should be developed. They would quickly add that it has to be done in a responsible and sustainable way. And I would press on issues of Canadian sovereignty. We don't want the economic future of our country tied to Washington, D.C. We should not have energy policy in Canada dictated by a dysfunctional Washington.

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So your branding approach is: oil sands equal Canadian sovereignty?
As a nation, we should think less about what Obama is doing and a lot more about what we can do to control our own destiny. And pipelines to the east and west are very key things for Canadians. We need an economy that can afford our social programs and the infrastructure we have to build—and is less reliant on the views of the U.S. Sure, we have the biggest trading partnership in the world. But if we are tied into a political system where we have very little influence—and which is unhealthy—we should try to separate ourselves.

So what's gone wrong with the branding effort?
This is a job without an end. It's a battle you have to get out there and fight every day. And there is a lot of work being done. Most environmental activity around this issue in Canada is funded out of the U.S. People who take that money should make public where it is coming from. Again, do we want a country where we allow people from other countries to dictate and influence our policy?

Haven't environmental groups just been smarter in presenting their arguments and images?
The industry is bound by facts and truth. I wouldn't say all people on all sides of this debate are as rigidly bound.

Is there something you personally should have done differently?
The industry is largely led by engineers. Engineers are actually well intended—we care as much about the environment as Greenpeace does. And we work hard to minimize the impact. What shocked us initially was that people didn't understand that, and there was this feeling that oil companies are evil—as opposed to the dollars and time spent minimizing [the impact] and improving technology. That was always the shocker, and that is part of the communications challenge. Keep it broad and tell it every day.

So is this a job for engineers—or for communicators?
It's a good question. The industry just needs to put more effort in getting out and telling the great story it has to tell.

Do you need a Neil Young of your own, a personality who is an advocate of the oil sands?
At the end of the day, facts and truths should prevail.

But isn't emotion important?
It is. You do have to get to the peoples' emotions, but do it on the basis of fact, not fiction.

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What would be the one visual image your side should put on the screen?
Reclaimed tailing ponds.

But aren't they just a drop in the bucket?
You've got to start somewhere. The path forward is for us to have continual, very rapid reclamation. Eventually, you will get to the point where you can actually mine without any significant tailing ponds. A number of people are working on that.

Will Americans actually buy that idea of improvement through new technologies?
It is hard to get their attention because of all the other issues they have around infrastructure, fracking, things like that. If they understand it, it will sell.

Is Canada's country brand being tarnished by the oil sands brand?
I don't believe that. People I meet know Canada as much for our snow and outdoor sports as the oil sands. Every time someone in the U.S. Congress says something negative, it gets major press in Canada and no press in the United States. We are just hypersensitive. The world sees us more holistically than that.

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About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

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