Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Don Thompson

This article appears in the September issue of Oilsands Review
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Don Thompson finished his term as president of the Oil Sands Developers Group in July, but he has no plans to quit what he started doing when he took the organization’s presidency four years ago.

He’s going to talk.

After taking the helm of an organization that was born as a regional issues management house, Thompson became an important industry spokesman, carrying the oilsands torch. He became president in 2008 – taking on a role which effectively represented his retirement from Syncrude. He had previously worked for Syncrude for 32 years, with environmental regulatory responsibility there. Because he is articulate and committed, the company continued to support him his efforts with OSDG. Week after week ever since, he has trudged across the continent giving presentations in communities large and small.

What drives him to do this? “Historically, the purpose of the developers group was to deal with regional issues which slowed down the development of our industry,” he says. “However, what I call the ‘reputational’ issue has become as much a problem for our industry as, for example, lack of transportation and other infrastructure concerns. And you have to remember that many other stakeholders (especially NGOs) are quite willing to give their views. So we started to go out and talk to people ourselves” to bring balance into the conversation.

“The messages I am effective have to do with ensuring a balanced discussion about the 3E’s – our industry’s economic contributions, environmental footprint and contribution to energy security,” he says.

“On the economic contribution side, I talk about the huge value this industry creates in terms of royalties, taxes and basic economic demand, and how it contributes enormously to our lifestyle and our economic well-being in a time of very rough economic seas. Wherever I go in Canada, I meet people who tell me someone in their family has benefited in an employment sense from the oilsands.”

He adds, “I talk about energy security. People are very focused on what’s happening in North Africa and other oil-producing countries around the world, and the prospect of becoming dependent on those countries for our energy is not a very comforting one. It is clear that if Canada did not have the oilsands, we would be dependent on those producing regions of the world.” And then he moves on to the big kahuna: “I talk about our environmental footprint, which is really being overblown by our critics. I talk about our impact on air, water and the land, and about our efforts to mitigate those impacts.”

In the last year alone, he has given 80 to 100 presentations (including tour groups) – roughly one third of them in the United States. If his main responsibility is to talk, he chooses his soapboxes carefully. His efforts are strategic. For example, he doesn’t often set up talks to audiences who strongly support the industry, “but neither do I focus on people who are adamantly opposed. I prefer to talk to people who are neutral or soft-positive, and make them more positive about my industry, so they will go out and talk it up. I talk to a lot of Rotary clubs and Chambers of Commerce and those sorts of organizations. I also talk to a lot of conferences where there is not a strong focus on the oilsands. And I talk a lot (using the same strategy) in the United States, where the knowledge of our industry is limited at best.”

Thompson’s typical audience is fairly small – 50-100 people. However, he believes those audiences are very influential in their communities. “They are opinion leaders. They tend to be appreciative that a business leader took the time to visit them. Their meetings are often larger than usual – I suppose that means I’m a bit of the draw. And they often tell me that they are happy they were able to hear my industry’s point of view because the only other opinions they hear are fairly negative. They tend to be business-friendly people, but all they’ve ever heard were the negatives.”

Thompson cites the example of recent presentation to a Rotary Club in Bellingham, Washington – a small city whose council voted last year to make the city an oilsands-free zone. “There was quite a large group of people at that meeting – many people brought guests.” Will council rescind its directive as a result? Probably not, but over the long term Thompson’s strategy should take effect.

“When you put yourself out as a speaker the way I have done, you quickly find that the world is very, very large. It's hard to change much at once, so at the end of every speech I tell people to get out and get active. That’s the best way I have to leverage myself. It’s the old domino effect.”

“I’ll continue crusading as past president,” he adds. “I don’t have to worry about staff and other issues now, but I still have bitumen in my veins. How could I not continue to carry the torch?”
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