Harbir Chhina, Age: 54
Hometown: Malikpur, India
Influential because: He’s the godfather of in situ oil sands developments
In 1999, Drew Zieglgansberger was an atypical, 23-year-old summer student at Alberta Energy Company. He hadn’t come from the ranks of engineers or geologists but from the rigs. He was a roughneck brought in to learn the business side of the operations. That summer, he caught the attention of Harbir Chhina, then the company’s vice-president of thermal recovery. At the end of the summer, Chhina asked Zieglgansberger to stay, and the next year asked him to lead the drilling and completion group at Foster Creek, a pioneering steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAG D) project. “I don’t know anyone else that would have done that with a 24-year-old with no post-secondary education coming off the Saskatchewan farm,” Zieglgansberger says.
In due course AEC became Encana, which spun off its oil sands operations as Cenovus, and Zieglgansberger is now that company’s senior vice-president of operations shared services, and Chhina is still his mentor. Zieglgansberger says Chhina gave him that chance 15 years ago because he has a natural intuition for finding underlying value, and that applies to both people and oil and gas assets.
Chhina joined AEC in 1988 because he thought the company had some good oil properties on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range. The company wasn’t convinced, and put him to work on some conventional fields. But he persisted, and in 1993 AEC gave him free rein to try and unlock the value stored deep underground. “For me, for my generation, Harbir is the godfather of in situ development,” Zieglgansberger says. “We were the first company to do SAG-D on a commercial scale and it was almost entirely on his back. He’s been the single biggest continuous light on this whole in situ side of the industry.”
Chhina is now responsible for all of Cenovus’s oil sands activities, including operations at Foster Creek, Christina Lake, Narrows Lake and Greater Pelican. He also leads the research and development team and the environmental technology investments teams, both of which have continued to break ground in oil sands development.