Globe and Mail Update
October 8, 2007 at 7:01 AM EDT
When other Canadian oil executives were enthralled with Alberta’s oil sands, Jim Buckee was leaping into far-flung hot spots like Sudan. When the industry was talking about virtually endless oil supplies, he was saying peak production was imminent.
He retired last month as CEO of Calgary’s Talisman Energy, one of Canada’s biggest oil producers. His job went to John Manzoni, BP’s former head of refining.
Mr. Buckee, 61, talked to The Globe and Mail about his contrarian strategies and views, global warming, whether mighty Suncor will fall prey to foreign buyers and why Australia is in his future.
What did you consider your greatest accomplishment in your 14 years as Talisman’s boss?
I think the biggest accomplishment was to take a small, Canadian-based subsidiary [of BP, the former British Petroleum] and turn it into a fully competitive, international oil and gas producer.
What is your biggest regret?
I have always been a big believer in the oil price going higher. I should have pursued acquisitions more aggressively than I did, because the supply situation is proving just as tight as I thought it would be.
Speaking of acquisitions, how did you lose the bidding war in 1997 for Wascana Energy (the former SaskOil, won by Canadian Occidental)?
We went hostile. I think going hostile is not the right thing to do.
Talisman was a big player in Sudan, then left after human rights groups jumped up and down. In retrospect, was that adventure a waste of time?
I don’t think we wasted our time. I think we did a lot of good for the Sudanese in general. We also acted as a conduit to the Sudanese government, which I believe was beneficial because it was very hard for anyone to talk to them. We had access.
Companies with oil sands exposure have outperformed conventional oil producers such as Talisman in recent years. Why did Talisman avoid the oil sands and do you regret the decision?
Not particularly. The oil sands are flavour of the month and their story is certainly beguiling. But I think the reality is that developing the oil sands is going to be difficult. For example, the thermal processes [the heating of the bitumen to allow it to be pumped to the surface] that work in the laboratory don’t always work in real life. There are going to be cost and execution difficulties in the oil sands. The oil sands are not just a big sand box with uniform oil-reserve quality throughout. Regrets? Return on capital is important to us. Our returns on capital have been outstanding.
But doesn’t Talisman have some oil sands leases?
We still have a couple of leases. Something may happen there.
Talisman has always promoted itself as an exploration company as well as a developer and producer. How much oil did you actually find?
I would have preferred our exploration to have been better. But it’s a hard row to hoe. The giant fields are largely discovered.
Do you think the world has reached peak oil production?
I do – we’re there or close to it. Mexico, the North Sea and possibly Ghawar [in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest conventional oil field] are all in decline. The truth is the world is producing 30 billion-plus barrels of oil a year and is finding less than 10 billion. This is the worry.
If we’re close to peak oil, what is your price forecast?
The price has to be high enough to hurt demand. It has to be rationed by price. There is no real demand destruction yet [with oil near $80 (U.S.) a barrel]. It’ll have to be at $120 a barrel, I think, before you’ll see that.
Was there any truth to the rumours that you were shopping Talisman?
We did have a number of approaches. But as you know, approaches are not the same as bids. These expressions of interest never proceeded to a bid, so they never went to the board.
Who made the approaches?
I won’t say.
Do you think Suncor will attract a takeover bid?
Suncor must be a tempting target for a big oil company with a lot of cash. So, on balance, yes, I do.
Should Canadians be concerned that so much of the oil industry is in foreign hands?
Not really. Because the oil and gas deposits and employment are here, you don’t have to worry too much. It’s not like the deposits can leave the country. As for the investment, there’s massive investment being made in the Canadian industry and the amounts are beyond the capabilities of most Canadian companies.
You’ve been called a climate-change denier. Fair label?
I’m not a climate-change denier. The climate changes all the time and the question is what causes it. It could be caused by changes in sun activity – we don’t know for sure. It has been warmer in the past. Calgary’s hottest year was not in the last decade. It was in 1927.
Are you really an astrophysicist?
I have a PhD from Oxford in astrophysics. I worked on radio emission mechanisms in pulsars.
Now that you’ve stepped down as CEO, what are your plans?
I’ve got a lot of interest in energy demand and supply, or lack of supply, which is a big worry to me. I’m a big skeptic of the anthropogenic global warming story.
I’ll do some work on all that. I’ll also join a board or two, but not big boards. They’re just about corporate governance now.
You were born in England, are a Canadian citizen and have lived in a lot of places. Where will you divide your retirement time?
I was born in Winchester and I’ll move between Canada, Britain and Australia.
My father was in the Royal Navy and for his last few years was involved in testing nuclear missiles. He was understandably very worried about the Cold War and the possibility of a nuclear war so moved the family as far away from that threat as he could. So we moved to Australia when I was 12 years old.
After school and my first degree in Perth, I was awarded a scholarship to Oxford to do a D.Phil [PhD]. So my mother, two sisters and a brother and other family are still living in Western Australia and I will see more of them. I intend to apply for Australian citizenship.
Title: Former CEO and president, Talisman Energy Inc.
Born: March 24, 1946, Winchester, England
Education: BSc Honours, physics, University of Western Australia; PhD, astrophysics, Oxford University
1971- joined Royal Dutch Shell PLC
1977 – joined BP becoming chief reservoir engineer in 1984, vice-president development programs Alaska in 1988
1991 – president and COO BP Canada
1993 – CEO and president,