Irving Oil considers the sale of the company as part of a strategic review

Irving Oil says it has launched a strategic review that will consider, among other things, “a full or partial sale” of the company, one of the largest in New Brunswick.

“A strategic review of the company is underway, and a series of options are being evaluated related to the company’s future,” the Saint John-based company said in a statement.

“No decisions have been made about where this strategic review may lead. Considerations will be given to a new ownership structure, a full or partial sale, or a change in the portfolio of our assets and how we operate them.”

The statement was signed by Arthur Irving, chair of the Irving board, Ian Whitcomb, the president, and Sarah Irving, the executive vice-president.

‘They don’t tell us much’

Louise Comeau, director of climate change and energy solutions at the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, said until she hears otherwise from the company, she’s going to assume the review is a normal part of doing business.

But she fears that’s not the case.

“It’s very difficult as always with this company and this family to understand the motivation because they don’t tell us much,” said Comeau.

She said she hopes “this is not a ploy as part of their campaign to undermine climate action” by connecting the review to the economic constraints posed by climate regulations.

But she’s suspicious of the timing.

“Yep, the timing is suspect. There’s no doubt about it,” said Comeau.

“One would hope that they wouldn’t do that, A, to their workers, B, to the community and C, in terms of their own reputation for being a responsible employer in terms of its environmental performance.”

Louise Comeau smiles at the camera.
Louise Comeau, director of climate change and energy solutions at the Conservation Council, says she’s concerned politicians will see this as an example of the negative impact of climate regulation. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

She worries that the announcement will be used as “a political game for others who are trying to undermine climate action federally and provincially, and I think that would be the most irresponsible outcome of all.”

“My biggest concern is that politicians will take this on as an example of the negative impact of climate regulation, and that is completely irresponsible in my view,” said Comeau.

Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon said she got a “heads-up” from Irving Oil’s president, Ian Whitcomb, to tell her about the news release.

She said she didn’t get a sense from that conversation whether selling is a first choice or a last resort.

Reardon said she’s not worried about a potential sale.

“I just felt a company like Irving Oil would be very particular who they would — if they were going to sell — who they would choose to sell that business to.”

Reardon believed the Irving family would want to ensure the business went into “the right hands” with a company that would “look after it and foster it and sort of keep it the way it is.”

Higgs concerned about potential sale

Premier Blaine Higgs said he’s not surprised by the company’s announcement, but he is concerned about the ripple effect a sale would have on New Brunswick.

“I’m hoping it doesn’t get to that,” said Higgs, who worked for Irving Oil for more than 30 years.

“I’d like to see the ownership remains here in New Brunswick because I think that certainly is the best-case scenario, but the reality is a private industry can look at options and they’re only being prudent in doing so.”

Higgs also expressed sympathy for the plight of the industry given the “emission standards that are being forced upon this industry” by the federal government.

“I am very concerned about the rules and regulations that are being imposed upon this business at a time when we are trying to manage commodity pricing [and] people’s cost of living,” he said.

“So they’re looking at a greener path forward, and we want to see what happened in New Brunswick because it has a huge impact on our economy and employment in this province.”

Largest refinery

Founded in 1924 by Arthur’s father, KC Irving, Irving Oil operates Canada’s largest refinery, which processes 320,000 barrels a day and is New Brunswick’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.

According to the company’s website, it has “more than 900 fuelling locations and a network of distribution terminals spanning Eastern Canada and New England.”

With 4,000 employees, the company is one of the most powerful in the province.

In 2021, Irving Oil announced a partnership with Calgary-based TC Energy aimed at “significantly reducing emissions through the production and use of low-carbon power generation.”

The company said at the time it was looking at adopting new technologies to “aid in decarbonizing the local industry,” but it has turned down interview requests about its long-term future as a refinery of crude oil.

Irving Oil spokesperson Katherine d’Entremont did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.

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