Rick George Defends Oil Industry's Poor R&D Record

Transocean’s Man in the Tar Sands

Suncor President and CEO Rick George - who is also on the Board of Directors of the Gulf-spilling service company, Transocean - seems to have spent Tuesday stumbling over his own tongue. First, he annoyed Alberta Deputy Premier Doug Horner by supporting a carbon tax that is applied evenly across the country.

That, Horner groused, amounts to a national energy policy, the likes of which no Alberta politician will ever tolerate.

Then, at the same event (an Air and Waste Management conference in Calgary), the Suncor boss both prodded the oil and gas industry to do more research - and then rose incredibly to defend the industry’s current, pathetic R&D record.

First, George said: “The energy industry … needs to build more research and development into business models. The level of investments and deployment of new technology should be a key measure of our success on a go-forward basis.”

But when a Globe and Mail reporter offered statistics showing just how little research oil and gas companies actually do, George got all defensive and insisted that his industry alone is somehow not credited for all of its innovations.

The Globe reported: “According to Statistics Canada, oil and gas extraction companies spend 0.5 per cent of revenues on industrial research, well below the Canadian average of 1.8 per cent. The percentage of oil and gas companies spending on R&D – 1.7 per cent – also lags the Canadian average of 2.1 per cent, and places it far behind manufacturers of foods, beverages and forest products.

“Mr. George, however, bristled at suggestions that oil and gas companies are laggards in research spending. Government statistics don’t capture the amount of innovation that happens in the field, he said.”

So, the oil industry, operating (at least where George is concerned) with the same corporate oversight as the companies that brought us the Gulf of Mexico disaster, spends far less than other industries in research, while the Alberta government alone is paying $2 billion in taxpayer dollars toward research in carbon capture and storage, and yet George tells us that his industry is somehow hard done by because of Alberta’s ridiculously modest $15-a-tonne carbon charge.

In fairness, George deserves some credit for supporting the carbon tax and for raising the R&D issue. He would deserve yet more credit if he used his position as CEO to model some good behavior - or if he quit the board at Transocean in protest of that companies complicity in the worst environmental disaster in US history. It’s the kind of gesture that might make us feel better about his leadership in the environmental disaster currently unfolding (slightly more under the radar) in the Alberta tar sands.