Home Featured Cover Ian MacGregor Reinvents Alberta (and Changes the World)

Ian MacGregor Reinvents Alberta (and Changes the World)

“We are a small company building a big thing.”

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Ian MacGregor, chairman and president of North West Refining Inc. (NW Refining).

For some people, retirement is a time to slow down and tinker with a hobby or two. You know, restore that classic car, write a novella, or take up knitting. Not so for Ian MacGregor.

“I was in retirement and I didn’t like it,” says the chairman and president of North West Refining Inc. (NW Refining). “So I decided to do something. Before, my career was about making money and thinking about the future later. Now I wanted to do something that would make the world a better place. I wanted to improve Alberta in some way and make it better for the people that will come after me.”

With that thought, MacGregor went full steam ahead into NW Refining, and into the one project that has the ability to completely redefine and maximize everything Alberta has to offer. It is the North West Redwater Partnership’s creation of the Sturgeon Refinery.

To first understand the incredible impact this refinery is poised to have in, and beyond, the province, one must first understand the man who casually decided to change the world.

Ian MacGregor was born in Alberta and was the first person in his family to go to university.

“I took mechanical engineering,” he says dryly. “It was because I was good at fixing cars, and that’s what my mom though mechanical engineers did!” Oops. Well, it suited him anyway. MacGregor is a builder and tinkerer and he’s always creating something. During grad school, he came across some guys in the office that were looking to build a little machine – so he built it for them. Then he quit grad school and just kept building machines. Apart from one summer job, he always supported himself through the work he did with his own hands.

“It’s too late to go and work for someone else now,” he laughs. “Albertans – we do our own work. We figure it out. We do it bigger and better. Life is a series of building things and having fun doing it!”

He also has a fascination with ironworks.

“Dad was in charge of selling scrap iron in his shop, so the owners of our local junk yards were trying to make friends with him. They let me take home whatever I wanted – a distributor, a speedometer – anything. I’d take it home and tinker with it, then get something else. As I got older, I picked up cooler stuff.” His “stuff” that he has collected over 30+ years is now one of the largest collections of early technology, including tools and machines from antiquity through the early years of Canadian history. It is all housed in a 20,000 square foot private museum.

When he’s not collecting, tinkering with, and building machines, he rides his bike and spars weekly with a retired boxing professional – you know, as most retirees do—and when he’s not in the museum or biking to the boxing ring, he’s a little busy with the first $9.5 billion dollar phase of a bitumen refining plant that will be the first of its kind in the world to incorporate carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and storage as part of its design.

“The Sturgeon Refinery is being built by a partnership,” MacGregor explains. “Fifty per cent by the company I started and 50 per cent by Canadian Natural Resources (CNRL). While I can only speak for my company, I know I could not have made it without CNRL’s support. I had the idea; CNRL thought it was a good idea. We are a small company building a big thing.”

While many Albertans know that a large refinery is in the works in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland, and that it means jobs for the recently recessed province, the scope of what is actually going on, and its implications, are massive.

“What we make in Alberta is bitumen,” MacGregor explains. “It’s the lowest quality, lowest level of oil. We ship it away and it’s refined and made into diesel, then shipped again somewhere else. Because bitumen is really thick, we have to add hydrogen. This also adds a lot of CO2, and it’s problematic if you don’t do something with it. The thick bitumen is also difficult to get through pipelines, so it’s very difficult to ship. To ship one barrel, you have to add half a barrel’s worth of diluent – and we are short of diluent in Alberta. The province is actually shipping two barrels to get the equivalent of one barrel to market.

“Let’s redefine! Let’s do things properly and deal with the issues!

“If I make that same barrel into diesel fuel, I get a smaller barrel to market, but it’s worth 3.5 times as much! If I use my pipelines for diesel rather than for bitumen, I can make way more economic value, and that is good for Alberta.”

He’s not stopping there. Remember that pesky CO2? When the refinery captures the CO2, the product goes from having the highest intensity of that gas to the lowest.

“We started another company called Enhance Energy Inc.”

Enhance Energy Inc. is running the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line (ACTL), which is currently the largest carbon capture and storage project in the world.

“Old oilfield sites still have half of their oil in them but it won’t come out unless we do something different,” he explains. “We take the captured CO2 and pump it into the old sites as a liquid. The CO2 stays down and the oil comes out. We are going to use the CO2 from our processors in Alberta to make a new industry for the province, recovering oil stuck in old reservoirs in central Alberta. Alberta can get money for something that is a problem for everyone else in the world. Everywhere else, CO2 is an issue, but in Alberta, it’s a feedstock.”

ACTL is built to handle 10-fold the capacity of the CO2 the Sturgeon Refinery can produce, which MacGregor says is like “taking every car in Alberta off the road” in terms in reducing by-product pollution.

“I’m trying to create a ton of jobs,” he says earnestly. “We need these jobs. These are jobs that are technical, highly-skilled, and beneficial for the environment. We are making lots of margin in Alberta to pay for things like hospitals and schools. That’s what I can do to make the world a better place.

“But we can’t fall asleep. We have to get moving on this. I’m frustrated because we have to move faster. Alberta has been good for so long that we are all living in a dream world. We need to use the tools we have for the future and use them intelligently.

“When I started this, I thought, ‘If I can get Phase 1 built, other people will [continue to] build them. I’ll start the process; others will come.’ I believe Alberta is being overly lethargic. I don’t want to be thinking 20 years from now, ‘Why didn’t we do this when we had the chance?’ We are in a place where not doing things is not an option. I think to myself, ‘What does the world look like if I don’t build more refineries? Does that look good?’ If we don’t do this, it will be bad for us, but it doesn’t have to be. We need to choose. Pick the status quo, or pick the future.”

You can hear and see the future right now. The Sturgeon Refinery is powering up, one machine at a time.

“Seven thousand pieces of equipment costing more than $100,000 each,” sighs MacGregor. “It’s like 7,000 new BMWs showing up on your front door and making them all work. Every day there is a long list of problems we are solving. It’s easy to be critical in this phase, but it will work. Every other refinery ever built works. We will get there.”

The Sturgeon Refinery is MacGregor’s biggest machine, one he spent a lifetime preparing for.

“If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a hunter. You go into the forest because you love to hunt, not because you are sure there is food out there. If you are built that way, be an entrepreneur. If you like to know where your food is coming from, be a farmer. I like to hunt. If I have to starve to death sometimes, that’s okay.”

The hunter is leading a team into the forest. Is he leading them blindly?

“I don’t think I’m a very good leader,” he’s quick to admit, “but I care about what I do. I really care about it and trust others around me. We do the best we can. I’m not leading them. I’m with them. I walked around the plant today asking a lot of questions. Most people were surprised that I wasn’t in suit, but I don’t even own a suit!”

Certainly, he maintains his busy life by carefully sticking to a regime designed to maximize work/life balance… right? Not so much.

“I’m not balanced! I love doing things, and it’s hard not to do things 24 hours a day! I have a family and I love them. When I’m with them, I’m in the moment with them, but I hate that work/life balance stuff because I think it is a bunch of nonsense! I look back and I raised a good family. They are all successful, but a career is fun, too. Go ahead and do it! Have as much fun as you can and don’t run away when there are problems. That’s where the real fun is!”

MacGregor is determined to help as many Albertans as he can to have the type of fun he loves, and that’s why he and Canadian Natural are both huge supporters of Women Building Futures.

“Alberta has been bringing people here to do work for a long time, but we have half of the work force that doesn’t get to participate in the high value jobs,” he says of why he chooses to support this organization. “Let’s get women into the trades and making tradesmen’s wages. Women Building Futures is successful, so I try to help them with that.”

MacGregor is unstoppable in his desire to turn Alberta around, show the province how to fully take advantage of its natural resources, and inspire as many people as possible to do the work they love.

“Chances – you are in the best place in the world to take them!” he says to his fellow Albertans. “People will give you a hand up every time. There is an entrepreneurial environment here and a lot of opportunity. You can have a dream here, and you get to pursue it.”

Does MacGregor pause to look back over his life and all that he has accomplished – and is poised to accomplish? Did he think that one day he would be spearheading a project worth billions in dollar value, and even more in future economic value? One that would revolutionize the province and turn our greatest resources into something even more stable and sustainable? Does he think of the impact he would have on the environment by changing the way we ship oil and by capturing and using up CO2? Does he solemnly raise a glass and give a slight nod to the graduates of Women Building Futures as they march their skills into the workforce?

Of course not. He doesn’t slow down long enough to reflect.

“I don’t think about anything except what I’m working on in the moment,” his laugh at the suggestion of quiet moments of reflection is long and loud. “It’s been a series of different things over the course of my life. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. I try not to make them twice.”

It’s not a bad philosophy, and one that has certainly worked for him thus far. So what comes next for the man who is determined to change Alberta, and the world?

“I’d like to build two more phases of the refinery. Then I have ideas for doing something new.”

We’ll stay tuned, MacGregor. We’ll stay tuned.

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