Alberta Can Help Lead Canada Through Energy Transition, Says Mueller

Lisa Mueller

In our Engaging with our Future leadership series, Bill Whitelaw, managing director of Sustainability and Strategy at geoLOGIC systems ltd., sits down with some of the best and brightest CEOs in the industry to unpack the issues surrounding the energy transition and what kind of leadership is needed.

Today, Bill’s conversation with Lisa Mueller, president and CEO of FutEra Power, a subsidiary of Razor Energy Corp.

There’s an “ever-present” pressure on leadership that Lisa Mueller knows well.

It’s close to her head — and to her heart.

And while that pressure has morphed and changed over her energy career, framed in an energy-transition context, it is more profound than ever. But pressure is something the FutEra Power chief executive embraces as her leadership companion; she’s always “thinking about it: morning, noon and night.”

FutEra will birth Canada’s first co-produced geothermal power project at Swan Hills (see sidebar). But projects like FutEra’s require new ways of thinking, and new ways of talking, about energy.

For Mueller, energy literacy is a leadership opportunity.

“We can create so much advantage by using our existing oil and gas infrastructure, and expertise, to transition to a lower carbon future,” she says. “Energy literacy is getting people both internally (within Canada) and externally (global community) to see the changes that are necessary.”

Generational family leadership also figures largely: four of her five children are pursuing engineering careers — and she wants to see an industry vibrant enough to challenge them, as well as provide the right opportunities.

Question: Talk to me about pressures on leadership in terms of Alberta’s energy future. Is there such a thing as literacy leadership?

Answer: “I think there’s an ever-present pressure, if I would call it that, on what it means to transition Alberta to what the future needs to be. In terms of leadership, you have to respect what you have, but also ask how do you move to what you need to be?

Energy has to be one of the most complicated systems in the world. Understanding the impact of change to the systems that undertake the production of that energy — and combining it with the incredibly integrated systems to deliver that energy — and you will have a modelling exercise that will confound most. We need everyone working together to get it right. Alberta has such deep commitment to the energy industry today, and to adapting to the energy of tomorrow through the development of new technologies. Our people are smart and committed, our companies are sophisticated and committed. We can do this.

I am a living example of this. Razor Energy, in the junior space, gave me the backing in 2019 to start development of the first co-produced geothermal project in Alberta and Canada. This green power will be on grid early in 2022. All the regulatory bodies joined forces to get the permitting right. We have integrated an oil and gas field with a power plant. Each facility type and operation on its own is quite something but we have managed to put them together to create better commercial outcomes and real emissions reductions.

It’s a symphony of effort to realize success where there is no pathway until there is. I loved the journey but it’s not for the faint of heart. I must be an entrepreneur at heart because the harder it got the more resolved I became to get it done.

I’m so concerned on a daily basis about energy literacy and the breadth of change needed. There’s generational opportunity during change, but you want to pull everyone through — like my staff, the company, the greater industry, and the younger generation like my own kids. I have four kids in engineering who might want to come home to Alberta (to work). So I'm always thinking about [leadership]: morning, noon and night.”

Q: There seems to be a growing sentiment that the oil and gas sector needs to quit “resenting” the need to change and get on with the business of transitioning. What’s your take in a leadership context?

A: “I don’t really ever have conversations with people that are fighting the fact that we need transition and I believe it’s because it’s not just an Alberta conversation. It’s not just a Canada conversation. You can look in any worldwide media report and see energy transition is underway. So, I think we’ve gone from a couple years ago when there was a little more resentment.

Now everyone understands we are changing to lower carbon. I think what worries me the most is that the folks that want us to go faster don’t actually understand the practicality of what it’s going to take. It's a physics thing. It’s a molecule thing. It’s an efficiency thing. It’s an infrastructure thing. And the biggest factor is that it’s capital intensive, so it’s a huge money thing. And the folks that hand wave, and say it’s going to be easy or quick, don’t seem to fully appreciate the complexity of it. Nor do we really talk about the practical impact on our current standard of living.”

Q: So, really the issue is less about change and transition, in and of themselves, than the pace at which we approach it, and what sustainable leadership change really requires?

A: “You couldn’t say it better than saying, look, there are real examples of places who didn’t quite get sustainable change right. California is really under the weight of its ‘too fast change’ where it didn’t understand that intermittency doesn’t allow for reliability and reliability is what underpins power systems and industry. You have to have reliable energy as your sidecar in everything that you do.

Look at Europe: people could suffer from energy poverty, or much worse, this winter in the natural gas crisis because politics maybe didn’t get lined up with practical field realities to ensure sustainable change.

And so I guess my hope is that what we have called the oil and gas industry traditionally gets the moniker of energy industry, or even better the Energy & Technology Industry in Alberta, which is where we should rebrand ourselves.

It is a dream to have every Canadian ‘chest-busting proud’ of the fact that we will build sustainable ways to transition to the future. We know energy, we’ve been in energy for decades and decades, and we will lead the change and spend real money to make it happen.

A unified country, where there is a hand-in-hand transition where all of Canada understands we are doing better than almost every jurisdiction on the planet. Let’s be the lowest carbon footprint in a petro world. And we shouldn’t cede our energy dollars to those nations such as Russia or Saudia Arabia that don’t have low carbon targets. The ask is loud and clear to the rest of Canada to come with us on this journey to a better place and understand the time it takes to get there. And, by all means, hold our feet to the fire if we stall.”

Q: Have we done an effective leadership job of advocating for our sector’s technological competencies?

A: “No, I think for a couple decades we haven’t. I’m a mechanical engineer who also has a background in journalism, so you know that I follow the story as much as I follow the technology. As a sector, we did a really good job of laying low, generously contributing to Canada, and just saying very little.

Unfortunately, other people started telling our story for us. Now we’re trying to catch up to tell what is a better story. But now many of those opposed to fossil fuels they think that we’re just raging capitalists and we’re trying to make the story fit our own profit narrative. But, reality is quite different.

And, here I am, leading a renewable energy company founded and incubated by a junior oil and gas company. That’s real and it’s exciting. There are many companies leading change in a significant way. Think of the huge oilsands players coming together to form the “Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero” initiative. But, does that get air time? Because we didn't tell our story, we don’t have the credibility in that whole sphere because others have gotten out in front of us. It’s a Norway kind of thing where Norway’s gotten this right. They have a petroleum industry. They also are way out in front in the green movement, but they find harmony in the way they tell their story. And I think we can get there, but I don’t know if we’re there just yet.”

Question: So you believe the sector can lead globally through more effective storytelling?

A: “What we need is an ESG scorecard in which we can really believe in, which scores not only environment but also social and governance as Canada is geopolitically stable and underpinned by the rule of law. It should be an independent, and international, scorecard that others believe as well. We’ve been applauded in many jurisdictions as leading. But, I am not entirely sure that even in this country are we unified on measurement and the path to a better future. We could start just in our own backyard by getting everyone here to believe it — again, with the Norway model in mind.

And, in addition, years ago I read a statistic from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce penned by Perrin Beatty where he said that the lost revenue from a lack of egress was about $50MM dollars a day — that’s a school or hospital built somewhere in the country every day. Can you imagine that story? One day we could be the lowest carbon barrel, with reams of renewable energy technologies developed and operating and living in the best country in the world, with exemplary education and accessible health.… (We would be) the last barrel to be turned off, leading the world in cleaner energy. It’s a stellar opportunity that doesn’t end at our borders. Everything we learn can be exported to other nations. I would be proudly Canadian in that reality. Harnessing the power of our people to actually change the energy world would be something incredible.”

Question: How have you changed as a leader?

A: “Oh, I'm I completely different than I was. It’s very funny because I've always sort of thrown myself into the innovative parts of whatever work I find because I find the dynamic of innovation so interesting, but it also makes leadership quite a bit more difficult because the path ahead is unknown.

The two things that have really changed for me is that in order to lead this group (at FutEra), you have to get comfortable with having individuals around you that have the right attitude and the right effort, but maybe not the experience because it’s all new. So I have a very great young team and I find that fascinating; I love the energy of it, but then you also have to realize there’s a lot more mentorship needed with an evolving market. I have to bring in disparate but applicable examples to provide my experience, because experience is the thing that, you know, we only learn the hard way, right?”

Question: Is leadership within our sector a responsibility of more than the C-Suite?

A: “So that’s very interesting. I have lots to say here; I'll be careful how I say it. Alberta has an enormous opportunity to reframe what sustainable change is.

But we all have to become ambassadors for our energy industry and it does track down to the individual. I think people have to contribute to change at the personal level. Every single person has to ask themselves what in their job they’re doing to contribute to us outlasting what is enormous pressure from the climate change conversation. There’s leadership of your own self and how you steward yourself in a way that you believe that we in Alberta have a future. In addition, it’s important to adopt the competitive habits that are prevalent around the world, because we are competing globally — we always have been.”

Question: On your leadership bucket list, what are the top three items?

A: “Number one would be that scorecard with somebody other than us scoring us and saying, yes, you actually are the cleanest barrel, or even better the ‘lowest carbon energy producing nation’. You've done a lot. Here’s where you started. Here’s what you have achieved. Here’s the amount of money you spent; legitimately you’re in the game. The scorecard allows consumers to understand the product that they’re buying, because there’s a real disconnect. A cleaner scorecard should be worth more or chosen first.

Number two is a reality check on the narrative that it’s producers, or suppliers, that are ruining the world. Most GHG emissions are created during combustion at the tailpipe or at the burner tip. That is a consumer driven thing. And I’ve said a hundred times, if you really want to lower GHGs, then you should stop buying fuel. Or insist on buying the cleanest barrel. It is a rule: once you stop buying something, I can tell you that day the market will stop selling it. That’s kind of how it works. It’s that simple. Yeah. You, the consumer, have the entire power to vote a hundred per cent and if you want to make a difference, then accept nothing less than a cleaner barrel.

Emissions are a global issue and stopping Canadian production without addressing demand means other jurisdictions will sell a higher emissions barrel and we will make things worse with our good intentions. And consumers need to use less energy. Full stop. For example, most days I walk to work. It’s a small choice but I feel good about it. Billions of people making better choices on a daily basis would add up.

The third thing in my list is a credible plan or a map to net zero in 2050. And I think that target date has to line up with the date and the pace that the world picks, be it 2050, as the right timeline. I think Canada should do that. How do we in Canada take our 1.6 per cent of global emissions and do better, but, more importantly, how do we export what we learn? If we can’t teach the big global emitters what better looks like by example, we’ve lost the race, because we could turn Canada ‘off’ and climate change marches on. We can make the cost of living sky high in this country by outpacing the global pace of change, and climate change marches on.

At FutEra, I aspire to develop green energy technologies for Alberta to improve the story here and contribute to ‘net zero’. I can see a world where our Canadian net zero hydrocarbon makes durable goods, not combustion products. That is possible. It would be exciting if we had ‘net zero plastic syringes’ that are sterile for our hospitals, as just one example of the future of hydrocarbons.”

Question: How do you learn as a leader?

A: “If I talk more than I listen, I’m having a bad day. Sometimes I have to teach. Sometimes I’m taught. But if I’m not listening, I’m not getting either of those dynamics.

My leadership style has always been from the back of the room. I have good people on my team. I have to be behind them, holding them up, breaking barriers, blocking and tackling. It’s like raising your kids: you give them enough rope and you say, look, I think you’re bright. Your confidence will be built because you go out there and try new things and learn, but I’m always watching and I’m right there for you. And when I can, I will reach in and tell you, hey, you might want to think about that one.”

Question: Final question. Leadership in a word? And a final thought about how energy leadership can bring Canadians together.

A: “Hope, which I believe is actually synonymous to steadfast belief. As in, if you (as a leader) lose hope, you're done. You have to behave like things are possible and then outwork people to get things done, solving issues as they arise. My mantra since university is that luck most favours a prepared mind. We make our own luck in this world and this challenge is no different.

Canada should be unified (around energy transition). And I think there’s a big job to do to unify this country and this industry and make real change, together. Albertans can lead this transition and join with the help of all Canadians; let’s get in the boat together and then row like hell.”

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