With the news of former premier Peter Lougheed’s death on September 13, aged 84, an outpouring of grief began throughout Alberta – indeed, throughout Canada. Rarely has a politician ranked so high in the esteem of the people he or she has been chosen to lead.
This article appears in the November issue of Oilsands Review
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
The tributes and commentaries ranged from reflections by ordinary citizens to formal commentaries from the great and the good. One of Lougheed’s biographers, Alan Hustak, observed that he was “the architect of modern Alberta” who, among many other achievements, helped turn the province’s petroleum industry into a global powerhouse. Nothing you can say about this great man seems over the top.
Lougheed’s career in the provincial Legislature began in 1967 – coincidentally, the year the Great Canadian Oil Sands (Suncor) plant was commissioned. The convergence is compelling, since several of his greatest achievements were oilsands-related. Energy issues dominated his years in power (1971 to 1985), and he was a decisive figure in what became known as Canada’s energy wars.
Among governmental issues, oilsands remained a core interest to the end of his long life. As he said in an Oil Sands Oral History Project interview 18 months ago, “After I left government in ’85 I said to my successor, Don Getty, ‘Don, I will stay out of most things you’re doing… but the one thing I am going to stay involved in is the oilsands, because I am very interested in its evolution and its development.…’ Things happened so quickly [under] Premier Klein. I have stayed involved in the oilsands in a more public way and I have discussed it frequently with Premier Stelmach as well. Perhaps more than any other, that’s the one subject I have stayed involved in since I left government.”
The Energy Wars: Lougheed’s early political battles began with a shot across the bow from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Inflation had become a national problem, oil prices were rising, and on September 4, 1973, Trudeau asked the western provinces to agree to a voluntary freeze on oil prices. Nine days later, his government imposed a 40-cent tax on every barrel of exported Canadian oil. The tax equalled the difference between domestic and international oil prices, and the revenues were used to subsidize imports for eastern refiners. At a stroke, Ottawa began subsidizing eastern consumers while reducing the revenues available to producing provinces (mostly Alberta) and the petroleum industry.
This outraged Premier Lougheed, who understood how long and hard the province had fought for control of its natural resources; resource ownership had not been conferred upon the province until 1930. In response, Lougheed announced that his government would revise its royalty policy in favour of a system linked to international oil prices.
His timing was impeccable. Two days later, on October 6, 1973, the Yom Kippur War broke out – a nail-biting affair between Israel and its Arab neighbours. OPEC used the conflict to double the posted price for a barrel of Saudi Arabian light oil to US$5.14. The Saudis and the other Arab states then imposed embargoes on countries supporting Israel, and oil prices rose quickly to $12. These events aggravated tensions among provincial, federal and industry leaders.
The rest of the 1970s were marked by rapid-fire, escalating moves and counter-moves by Ottawa, the western provinces and even Newfoundland. From 1974 to 1985, Ottawa imposed an export tax on conventional crude oil – a move Lougheed called “the most discriminatory action taken by a federal government against a particular province in the entire history of Confederation.”
Lougheed strongly asserted and ultimately resolved, beyond question, Alberta’s ownership of most hydrocarbon and other mineral resources within its provincial borders, and he made it clear to industry itself that the government was in charge. “It was obvious that the oilsands were owned by the people of Alberta,” he explained in the Oral History interview. “We consistently and constantly made sure that the industry understood that the Government of Alberta was the owner, and we weren’t just there in a supervisory or regulatory way. We were extensively involved because we were the owners.”
Canada’s political conflicts over energy climaxed with the introduction of the National Energy Program (NEP) in 1980. Lougheed led negotiations on significant modifications a year later, mainly exempting “new oil,” but the contentious policy was not fully removed until 1986. As the policy collapsed due to severe recession and wrong assumptions about global oil prices, Lougheed played a key role in negotiating a new constitutional agreement for Canada, then retired from office.
Syncrude: One of the positive developments of the energy wars era was the rescue of Syncrude in 1975. The oilsands project’s costs had soared, and one of its partners had pulled out. To a certain extent, that rescue involved a different way of looking at royalties. Lougheed’s interest in petroleum royalties began early in his years in power, before the events of the early 1970s embargo drove oil prices to historically high levels. “We were in a fairly experimental period with the oilsands,” he said, “we had the Great Canadian Oil Sands [project] which was struggling. When Syncrude came along and we got into the negotiations, it was clear we could not approach [the owner’s share] from the perspective of gross revenue….We had inherited from [Ernest Manning’s] Social Credit Government, a good system of royalties for the conventional oil and gas system, which was a percentage of gross revenue. We modified it from time to time in government, but the conventional oil and gas business was based on a percentage of the gross revenue.”
The oilsands were a different kettle of fish. Lougheed continued, “Right from the start it was clear that it wasn’t really fair because of the risk element that came with being involved in such a new process. You know, a lot of people wondered, was it going to work? Would it be economic?” All of those questions led to a discussion between the owner – the Government of Alberta – and Syncrude. ‘What kind of royalty scheme should we have?’ [The discussion] evolved into the whole question of a net profits approach. It was completely different than [the policy used for] the conventional oil and gas industry.”
The 1975 Winnipeg Agreement, which saved the Syncrude project, was one of the few moments of cooperation among governments during the energy wars. Always a savvy negotiator, during those 12 hours of meetings on February 1st, Lougheed committed the province to take a 10 per cent interest in the project for the then-mind-numbing sum of $200 million (about $1 billion in 2012 dollars). Alberta would provide loans that the province could convert into equity, would construct no-risk utilities for the project, and would purchase an ownership interest for cash. This proved to be an extraordinary investment for the people of Alberta, “the owners of the resource.”
AOSTRA: Through the formation of a government agency, Peter Lougheed created a scientific and technical environment that unlocked the secrets of producing bitumen from the deposits too deep for mining, and fundamentally transformed the industry itself.
At the time, work on the deeply buried oilsands reservoirs, which represent about 90 per cent of the resource, had stalled. Imperial had made progress on the Cold Lake deposit, but there were no demonstrated technologies that could commercially unlock deep oil from the Peace River, Athabasca or Wabasca (now seen as an extension of Athabasca) deposits. At the time, there was little likelihood things would improve. Few companies were actively developing oilsands leases outside the mineable area.
Originally called “Project Energy Breakthrough,” the idea was to speed up the development of new in situ oilsands technologies. When legislated into existence in June 1974, the Alberta Oil Sands Technology Research Agency (AOSTRA) became one of the largest research and development programs ever launched in Canada. The act originally limited AOSTRA’s activities to oilsands, but an amendment to the legislation soon gave the agency the authority to fund heavy crude oil research. In 1979, the Crown corporation’s mandate was expanded again to include enhanced recovery of conventional crude. Over its lifetime, AOSTRA funded about $1 billion (1980 currency) in oilsands extraction research.
Initially, the Alberta government agreed to invest $100 million in this technology development fund. During the active life of the corporation, however, AOSTRA spurred the petroleum industry to undertake numerous demonstration projects, representing some $2 billion of research and development spending. In most cases, the authority essentially agreed to match the amount of money a company or industry partnership was willing to invest in oilsands projects.
During the AOSTRA years, the industry launched in-situ demonstration projects in all the major oilsands deposits. These included cyclic steam stimulation (CSS); steam flooding; forward combustion; reverse combustion; and combined forward combustion and water injection (COFCAW). However, AOSTRA’s crowning achievement occurred 25 years ago, when its Underground Test Facility proved the effectiveness of steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD.)
Premier Lougheed got excited when he talked about SAGD. “I think SAGD…should be encouraged by the owner and is being encouraged by the owner. It’s the longer-term asset for the province. Surface mining has its limitations, and involves more environmental and water concerns. So, there is a clear and important distinction when you get into oilsands and that’s what the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority had been focusing on….Throughout all of our discussions here, let’s make sure that we are drawing a distinction between SAGD and in situ [those words can be used interchangeably] and surface mining.” Lougheed served on the board of MEG Energy, which was one of the first companies to develop a commercial SAGD operation.
Ideal Model: AOSTRA spurred oilsands experimentation and development, although prospects for further development diminished in early 1986 when a precipitous collapse in oil prices, once again, threatened commercial development. While AOSTRA did not have a mandate to undertake projects on its own, in the 1980s it took a significant risk by constructing the now-legendary Underground Test Facility. The UTF proved steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), which has since emerged as the most important system for developing deep underground oilsands reservoirs.
A noteworthy footnote to this discussion is that the 2009 Summit of the Americas held AOSTRA up as an ideal model for energy development. According to the Centre of International Governance Innovation (CIGI), which sponsored the summit, AOSTRA “engaged the private sector and the university research community in developing technology related to the oilsands, while the government retained the rights to the technology.” A government endowment allowed the organization “to function independently of the electoral cycle. A dedicated expert and respected seven-member board of directors helped secure the private sector’s buy-in.” In addition, “control by the government helped maintain continuity over downturns in the economic cycle.”
CIGI also noted with approval that, before AOSTRA determined its goals, “it conducted two years of extensive consultations with many stakeholders. Only after determining exactly where the technology gaps existed did AOSTRA put out a call for proposals.” Furthermore, “aside from successfully developing new technology, AOSTRA fostered and financed a new generation of academic and scholarly expertise in many aspects of oilsands development. The investment in human resources is often discounted, but has been fundamental for the sector’s success in Alberta.”
Afterword: Much has been said about Lougheed’s impact on the province of Alberta. However, out of the seemingly endless stream of tributes that followed his death came this from former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, whose government finally dismantled the National Energy Program. “Peter built the modern Alberta: schools, universities, hospitals, highways and whole communities [like modern Fort McMurray]. He always defended Alberta’s interests brilliantly around the federal-provincial table. At the same time, he would be the first to say…‘We were Canadians first.’”