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What the future holds for the oilsands and gas stations — and 12 other Qs for Shell Canada’s departing boss

Only five months after Michael Crothers became the top boss at Shell Canada, wildfires ripped through Fort McMurray, forcing the shutdown and evacuation of the company’s oilsands facilities.

But that was just the beginning of an extraordinary five years for both president and company — a stretch that included the blockbuster sale of those oilsands operations and the decision to proceed with LNG Canada, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country’s history.

The company has also invested in wind power, tree planting and a waste-to-fuel facility, among other projects.

The born-and-raised Calgarian will retire at the end of the month after a 33-year career with Shell Canada, including assignments in Asia, Europe, Africa and North and South America along the way.

During a pivotal time in the energy sector, Crothers sat down with CBC News to answer questions about the future of the company, climate change, carbon policy and other pressing issues during his final days on the job before he hands over the reins. 

He also hints at what Canadian projects could be right around the corner for the world’s largest energy companies.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Since you became president, which really isn’t that long ago, there sure has been monumental change with Shell Canada.

We were a big oilsands producer at that time and we had assets that we don’t have any longer. We were really focused on shale and on heavy oil and now you can see our transformation, having shifted to gas and renewables really strongly and focusing on this powering progress strategy for really getting to net-zero. Climate change strategy has transformed Shell Canada.

Shell Canada has sold most of its oilsands assets while investing heavily in natural gas. (David Bell/CBC)

Do you think the oilpatch, in general, is ready for the energy transition?

I think it really varies and if you look around in our peer group and see others like Shell have embraced net-zero and are really focused on that. Some of the smaller producers are, I think, still getting their heads around what it means for them.

But, you see the pressure coming from investors really strongly that they expect companies to have a plan to be able to transition to a lower-carbon future. And, also, we see such pull from customers. That is really starting to drive a lot of change.

How do you hear from customers?

In various ways. We see examples where our customers, say a large diesel customer is seeking an opportunity to offset their emissions or they’re looking for biodiesel as an alternative. We just made a large investment in a company that actually makes bio-aviation fuel, not in Shell Canada, but outside of Shell Canada. So, that’s one example.

We have LNG cargoes that are being requested by customers to be carbon-neutral. I was talking to a trader [last week] and he told me that in the first quarter of 2021, we’ve had double the number of orders for carbon-neutral LNG cargo than we had all of last year.

And then for retail customers, we launched our Carbon Neutral Driving back in November 2020. People are starting to really want to do something themselves. What can they do as individuals to make a dent in the climate change challenge and commit some money to that. We see big uptake of carbon neutral driving offsets in the Netherlands and Germany and we are so pleased with the uptake so far in Canada.

The Conservative party came out with its environmental platform. Now all the major federal parties agree a carbon tax is the most effective way to reduce emissions. How important do you think that is in terms of climate change and, as an industry, to have that alignment on this policy moving forward?

I think it’s helpful to have some certainty. The key thing that we’ve always talked about is, what are you going to do with those revenues?  What we’re advocating is use of those revenues to help further greening the economy and use those revenues to help make the transformation to lower-carbon options in Canada.

I didn’t get a chance to read that Conservative platform in detail, but I was quite interested in their carbon savings account idea because I think it helps get Canadians individually involved in how to make a difference themselves.

Watch his full response here:

Michael Crothers, the departing president of Shell Canada, says Canadians should talk about how to tackle climate change, not whether or not to do it. 2:07

What’s the future of the oilsands? In 20 years from now, will production be higher or lower?

We obviously stepped away from that business mostly, but, the opportunity is to continue to drive down the carbon intensity of that production and offset it through carbon capture and other means. There’s no reason why those assets can’t be viable for many, many years to come.

Watch his full response here:

Michael Crothers sees a long future for the oilsands 1:16

The key to making it viable is having this high-quality product that continues to show we’re the most viable, long-term, sustainable source of those supplies of hydrocarbons.

But refineries in Atlantic Canada are still importing oil from the U.S. and other countries. They could get it from Western Canada even though it’s a longer shipping route. So it comes down to cost. It’s not about all these other values that you’re talking about. So, at what point could we actually see refiners, other companies and countries choose Canadian oil and gas because of the standards you’re talking about?

I think it comes back to the customer conversation, I mentioned earlier. Customers are starting to demand this and so I think companies and countries have to respond to that. When you see the clean fuel standard, for example, it’s supposed to become law here. We embrace that. We were happy to drive the carbon-intensity down. But, customers are demanding this. I think it’s moving a lot faster than people might realize.

What’s the latest with LNG Canada and how committed is Shell?

Fully committed. This is a flagship project for the group and I was delighted to be part of the team that was able to persuade our board to invest in it. It was sort of the antidote to exiting the oilsands, which a lot of us felt quite emotional about, actually.

We did have some impacts in our supply chain with COVID last year, we had to gear down at our Kitimat site because of public health orders to make sure people were safe.

We are still on track for middle of the decade startup. There’s presently 5,000 or so people working on this project in Canada and it’ll grow from there.

This work camp, the Cedar Valley Lodge, will eventually be able to accomodate 4,500 workers at the LNG Canada site in Kitimat, a small community with a population of just over 8,000 people. (LNG Canada/Contributed)

As your company shifts away from oil, how much of a challenge is it to keep profits up?

It’s an insightful question because we’re actually experimenting with business models in the same way we’re implementing new technology. In this existing business, there’s an established way of doing business. But in renewables, a lot of the technology is not only new, but so are the business models that go along with that.

So, how do you find the right combination of all of the technology, the business model and the customer equation for it to work? That’s challenging and that’s something that we’re learning about.

How do you think Shell’s gas station business is going to change over the next decade? 

I’m really excited to see how it will evolve. We’re unique among the oil majors as we kept our retail and in fact have been growing our retail slowly over the last five years. We’re adding 40 to 50 sites a year because we need that interface with customers and we think it’s going to evolve in ways we don’t fully understand, but it’s pretty exciting.

So, there will be a need for EV-charging. There’ll be a need for hydrogen access. We have our first two hydrogen stations in Vancouver that I was happy to be part of getting going in 2017.

This need for mobility, especially in a country as big and spread out as Canada, is going to be dominant and we think that the retail network can provide that access point for people with whatever mobility needs they’re going to have in the future. Whether that’s for an electric car or for a fuel cell vehicle, you’re still going to need to go on road trips and get drinks and goodies for the kids.

A Shell hydrogen refuelling station in Vancouver opens in 2018. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The new president of Shell Canada is Susannah Pierce. She’ll also have the title of General Manager of Renewables and Energy Solutions. What does that signal about the future of Shell Canada?

I had that in my portfolio without having it in my title like that. But, I think the fact that we deliberately have coupled that with her role as president and country chair just shows the pace and the determination of Shell to invest in renewables in Canada.

There’s quite a portfolio and we can’t talk about any of those projects right now because they’re so confidential, but I can tell you there’s a really active funnel of opportunities. I’ve built a team, which I’m giving to Susannah to continue to progress those somewhere at the point of an investment decision and, hopefully, we can do that later in the year. 

Watch his full response here:

Departing president Michael Crothers says the company will continue to invest in renewables and low-emission sources of energy 1:01

How close is Shell to building another carbon capture project like Quest in Alberta?

I think we’re pretty close, but again, that’s another project that’s in the process of moving through our development funnel, as we call it, and looking at whether it’s investable.

It’s promising for us to look at more carbon capture. We think the next reiteration of Quest would be 30-40 per cent cheaper to build and to operate. When you look at the opportunities and our commitment to net-zero, we have to continue to drive the emissions profile down of our assets.

The Quest project was originally a joint venture between Shell Canada, Chevron Canada, Marathon Oil Canada and the governments of Alberta and Canada. (CBC)

Would it be in Alberta?

It’ll be in Alberta, certainly.

Does it make more sense to build a carbon capture project with an existing facility or tie it to a new project that’s getting built?

I really think it could be both. I think that either are viable and both will be needed, actually.

How long will it take for Shell to recover from the economic impact of COVID?

It’s a question that really varies a lot by our line of business.  

If you’re talking about retail, certainly we’re nowhere near the level of consumer demand that we had because people obviously stopped driving as much.

On the other hand, we see an uptake in diesel. Farmers still have to plant crops and we have people that need to drive trucks. In fact, that part of our business has actually done a little bit better because there’s so much delivery of the goods and services sold to households right now.

Oil and gas prices have really stabilized. Our upstream natural gas business [in northeast B.C.] is much healthier than it was a year ago when we saw the collapse of both oil and gas prices, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

I think it’s probably going to be another year before you see everything really bouncing back. Just looking at some of the expert advice, as vaccinations are done, hopefully, fully by September or October this year, then people can kind of get back to normal.

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