A key supporter of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMEP) is increasing transportation options for its growing oil production by expanding its international marine operations to help boost the value of its product.

Calgary-based Cenovus Energy ships an average of 11,500 barrels of oil per day through the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline. That would increase with approval of TMEP because Cenovus is one of 13 shippers that have contracted capacity in the expanded Trans Mountain pipeline system. TMEP would create better access to international oil markets, where prices are typically higher, giving Canadian producers the opportunity to diversify beyond the North American market.

Already, Cenovus is building an in-house marine operations department focusing on optimizing transport opportunities — while continuing to remain focused on safety and protection of the environment.

Recently we connected with Claus Thornberg, a 30-year marine industry veteran and former tanker captain who joined Cenovus last year to lead the company’s venture into marine transportation.

In part one of our interview with Claus, he talks about his background as a mariner and about Cenovus’ reasons for taking a more direct interest in lease and commercial management of oil tankers.

What background and expertise do you bring to Cenovus?

My career has basically always been on the shipping side of the marine industry. I’m a Danish citizen. I worked with A.P. Moller-Maersk — which is where everybody in Denmark starts if they want a marine career.

I did my apprenticeship and my mate and master’s degree as part of A.P. Moller-Maersk. I also worked at other ship-owning companies but primarily and almost exclusively on tankers. I grew to a rank of captain until I decided to continue my career ashore. Before joining Cenovus, I was the chief executive officer of Nordic Tanker, a Scandinavian-based ship owner.

Calgary is a long way from the ocean. Was it an adjustment for someone with your background?

I received probably several hundred emails asking, “Do you know how far Calgary is from the ocean?” Of course I was aware of that coming into the job. I go to Vancouver and other places in BC quite regularly. I always make it a point to go down to the harbour and take in the salty air and listen to the seagulls for a while.

Not many Canadian oil companies choose to get involved in marine operations. How did that factor into your decision?

Cenovus has always been an innovative company and recently we’ve been expanding our outlook towards downstream activities as well, in order to strengthen our value proposition. Building up marine activity appeals a lot to me as it ensures more control over the quality and type of transportation and will allow us to be more cost effective. Besides, I like building something up from scratch. I felt that with my 30 years in shipping I had something to offer to the company’s overall strategy and priorities — which include carrying out shipments in an absolutely safe and also cost-efficient manner.

How does Cenovus benefit from this marine venture?

There is a genuine international interest for not only Cenovus products but for oil coming out of Canada in general. The biggest problem we’ve been facing, and you can say our new customers have been facing too, is getting our product to tidewater. It’s been a struggle to increase capacity to transport our product to international markets — and it still is. It’s important for Cenovus and for Canada that we get the ability to transport our product to the market that pays the best. Our marine interests will help ensure that, in partnership with others such as Trans Mountain, Canadian oil will always be carried safely onboard the tankers.

Who owns the ships that will move your oil?

We are shippers on Trans Mountain Pipeline and have been since 2011. Right now through our partnership with Kinder Morgan Canada, Cenovus loads approximately one tanker a month from Westridge Marine Terminal. This involves a partly-loaded Aframax vessel. For this purpose we enter into charter (lease) agreements with tanker owners who are well established and have a track record of providing safe and reliable oil transportation. Certainly there are tanker owners in the industry who have impeccable track records. Notwithstanding that, as responsible partners in the marine transportation of our products, we will undertake our own due diligence during chartering of the tankers to help ensure stringent safety and operating requirements are met.