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Shifting sands

By Peter McGonigle | January 19, 2012
Shifting sands
Jean-Michel Gires

From a sunlit office on the 30th floor of a downtown Calgary tower, Total E&P Canada’s President and CEO Jean-Michel Gires can see for miles. The high-rise, with its bright atmosphere and long view, is the ideal setting for him to discuss operational strategy as seen from his own top corporate viewpoint. Facing north, there lies an almost limitless landscape of promise and challenges – an expansive perspective clearly reflected in Gires himself.

“Working in western Canada is a very motivating and rewarding experience,” says Gires, who admires the region’s openness to newcomers, its cosmopolitan nature, entrepreneurial savvy and how it’s always building itself. Born in continental Europe, Gires arrived in Alberta and instantly found it to be less aristocratic and more of a meritocracy – an open society. “Here it’s because you have ideas and you want to contribute. That, I can say, is very refreshing. You don’t find so many places like that.”

Queried about the energy company’s relatively recent presence in western Canada, Gires says the answer is obvious: significant potential energy reserves. “The planet is still growing, it’s still developing… so we go where there is the potential capacity to supply energy to the world,” he says, calling the Canadian oil sands a top priority worldwide for Total and one of the most important development areas in the world for years ahead.

Despite what Gires calls “excitement and contradictory attention” about the oil sands, Total E&P Canada is confident about its investment and clear about what will drive success. “Technology is at the core of what we do,” he says, citing new methods of mining and steam-assisted gravity drainage. From heavy oil to oil sands and shale gas, each non-conventional resource has unique challenges. “Our industry is always developing better solutions as we go,” says Gires. “We are absolutely convinced we are going to invent much better technology into the long-term future.”

Since the industry benefits as a whole with technological cooperation, Gires is excited to see many partnerships forming between oil and gas companies, universities and entrepreneurs. “If we’re working more together, progressing on a collaborative route, Alberta and western Canada could be this type of world-class non-conventional technology precedent,” he says.

Unconventional resources call for unconventional solutions. He insists not just on good economic performance but a clean environmental record and a healthy social performance, too. “If we can work together with objectives of different parties, we can really find very elegant solutions,” he says.

Stakeholder expectations have risen worldwide, whether it be in Asia, Africa, Russia, Kazakhstan or Venezuela. One of Total’s headiest challenges, not just in Canada but globally, is to obtain a social license to operate. For Total, this has meant opting for a more balanced approach that delivers economic, environmental and social results. “The expectation is always the same: Yes, we need development; yes we need to keep developing our societies – but not at the price of disruption of the environment,” he says.

As proof of his belief in this balance, Gires knows by name many of northern Alberta’s First Nations, whom he admires for their traditional knowledge of nature and the environment. “Historically, it was their capacity to survive in the boreal forest, where passing the winter is quite the challenge,” he says. “You have to deal with nature if you want to survive, so it’s really at the core of traditional knowledge.” Closing the loop between the community’s traditional knowledge and that of business, Gires says: “If you want to be very good at reclamation, you better understand the ecosystems,” he says.

In addition to limiting its impact on air, water and land ecosystems, Total not only directly creates jobs, and uses its considerable experience building community capacity to create a future for local workers. Of local job creation, Gires says: “If you just limit yourself to that, very quickly it will be a pretty small pot you are trying to deliver… The community must be given the capacity to access the technical jobs.”

An “elegant solution,” as Gires says, means taking all concerns into consideration, from a reclamation process that returns ecosystems to their native condition, to providing necessary skills to the community for future projects. “If we can involve the community in our knowledge, rebuild the environment and make a business out of it, they can participate directly and will benefit in the long run. It’s quite an elegant solution.”

Alberta is well known for its richness in idle carbon resources, but Gires is equally familiar with the region’s relative dearth of human resources. For a geographic area as large as France, Alberta has just one-20th of the population. In decades to come, Total’s work in this neck of the woods will require more than monetary investment – it will need people, too.

“The industry may need up to 5,000 or 10,000 professional people to replace baby boomers,” he says, referring to the issue of human resources as “a huge challenge.” He believes the industry must do more to improve its reputation as a boom-bust sector – not exactly a long-term career draw.

It’s likely that by 2020, the landscape outside Gires’ window will be much different. More people. More projects. But it’s equally likely that with the same elegance applied to today’s challenges, tomorrow’s landscape will be vastly improved.

“There’s a long way to go,” says Gires, “but you know, this type of vision you can develop and apply it at the field level and get very, very encouraging results.”

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