Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How Public Money Saved Syncrude

This article appears in the August issue of Oilsands Review
A quarter-century after Peter Lougheed retired as Alberta’s first Progressive Conservative premier, he is sitting in Calgary’s historic Lougheed House (a mansion built by his grandfather a century ago), reflecting on his government’s impact on the oil sands.
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
Lougheed won a seat in Alberta’s Legislature in 1967, the year the doors opened on the Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor) mine and upgrader; he became premier four years later. During 14 years at the helm, he took an active role in oilsands development. “It was obvious that the oil sands were owned by the people of Alberta,” he says. “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.”

Fast-forward to 1974, when the province’s resource ownership and its commitment to play an active role in development helped revive Syncrude during a near-death experience.

The project had received regulatory approval in 1968, but by 1974 the projected cost of the plant had more than doubled to $2 billion. At year-end Atlantic Richfield Corporation, which was developing its Prudhoe Bay assets, sent its partners a telegram saying that effective January 1st they were pulling out. The remaining participants – Cities Service Canada, Imperial Oil and Gulf Canada – were paying $666 per minute for an increasingly dicey-looking project.

Energy Shock and Energy War
The world’s first energy shock was in high gear. During the previous three years, global oil prices had more than tripled to $11.50 per barrel. While this should have created an energy boom, in Canada it didn’t.

The environment in 1973 was one of high inflation and rising oil prices, and in September Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau asked the western provinces to agree to a voluntary freeze on domestic prices. Nine days later, his government imposed a $0.40 tax on every barrel of exported oil. The tax equalled the difference between domestic and international prices, and the revenues were used to subsidize imports for refiners in eastern Canada.

Outraged that Ottawa would tax a provincial resource, Alberta retaliated in early October. The province cancelled the Alberta Oil Revenue and Royalty Plan effective at yearend, eliminated maximum royalty provisions in all leases and introduced a price-related royalty system. Days later came the Arab/Israeli Yom Kippur War and an embargo by Arab states on oil deliveries to the US and Western Europe. As international prices skyrocketed, so did Ottawa’s export tax. For the rest of the 1970s, OPEC sat in the oil price driver’s seat.

In December Trudeau announced a National Oil Policy “designed to reach Canadian self-sufficiency in oil and oil products before the end of this decade.” Among other measures, this policy added fuel to the crude oil firestorm by making royalties a non-deductible expense for corporate income tax calculations and putting price caps – euphemistically called “made-in-Canada prices” – on oil production for domestic use. Alberta responded with plans to implement a 65% surroyalty on oil. The 1974 Liberal budget made some concessions but retained in principle the right of the federal government to tax provincial royalties.

As Canadians worried about the country “running out of oil,” the producing provinces felt hoodwinked and betrayed. In effect, they argued, the feds were arrogating the fiscal benefits of rising oil prices unto themselves and encroaching on provincial resource ownership. These moves precipitated the bitterest intergovernmental conflicts in Canadian history. The first of two political wars had begun, and battles would rage for a decade.

The political environment was toxic, and it remained so during the Syncrude crisis. According to Hans Maciej, who at the time was the Canadian Petroleum Association’s technical director, “The first energy war did not end until the end of 1975 after the federal government introduced price increases for crude oil and natural gas and, most importantly, recognized the role of royalties paid prior to the price upheaval as a legitimate business expense.”

An Early Thaw
At the beginning of the Syncrude crisis, the consortium created two management teams – one team of executives to plan ways to deep-six the project; another to find ways to keep it alive. In addition to two top executives from each of the three partners, the life-support team included an executive vice president from Cities Services, Calgary-based Bill Mooney. According to Lougheed, “Everybody knew Bill and he just had a way with him of getting people involved and he’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. Mooney played a major behind-the-scenes role in getting people together.”

Though the political environment was toxic, these men had the task of getting government participation in the Syncrude project. Absent other industry partners, public money was the only alternative to a shutdown. The team of seven made a dozen cross-country trips in 17 days. One breakthrough came toward the end of January, when Mooney walked unannounced into Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources Donald Macdonald’s office suite. Hearing that Macdonald was too busy to see him (meetings all day), Mooney decided to wait him out.

When Macdonald returned from Cabinet, Mooney accosted him: “I’ve got to see you.” During a brief meeting the minister outlined the concessions the federal government was willing to make. As Mooney was leaving, Macdonald said “If you tell anyone about this I’ll call you a goddamned liar.”

The Winnipeg Agreement of February 3, 1975 was the outcome of the Syncrude rescue team’s countless phone calls and meetings, and it represented an early thaw in the political climate. The participants in the 12-hour session convened to reach consensus included many of Canada’s key decision-makers. The chairmen of Cities Service, Imperial, Gulf and Shell were there, along with other executives from their companies. Three provincial ministers accompanied premier Lougheed: energy minister Bill Dickie, intergovernmental affairs minister Don Getty and attorney general Merv Leitch. Ontario Premier Bill Davis also brought key ministers to the negotiations. Federal players included Macdonald and Jean Chretien, president of the Treasury Board.

There was give-and-take from everyone except the Shell delegation, which stormed out of the meetings after an hour. They would have considered taking an equity stake in the project, but CEO Bill Daniel first wanted a government-guaranteed base price for production. His team went home empty-handed.

Many people remember the Winnipeg Agreement as a successful effort to replace with government money the 30% equity vacuum created by the departure of Atlantic Richfield: Ottawa took 15%, Alberta 10% and Ontario 5%. The private partners agreed to take a $1.4 billion interest in the project, but Cities Service and Gulf gave Alberta the option to convert a $200 million loan into equity. The province also agreed to construct a pipeline and a power plant, which were risk-free.

Particularly innovative was a royalty structure reflecting technological risks. “When Syncrude came along and we got into the negotiations,” according to Lougheed, “it was clear we could not approach (royalties) from a gross-revenue point of view. It wasn’t really fair because of the risk element involved in such a new process.”

It took eighteen months to prepare legal documentation for the Winnipeg Agreement, and signing took two days. The second day of signing, for dignitaries, was planned for the Saskatchewan Room in Edmonton’s Westin Plaza hotel. For the occasion, Bill Mooney used a pair of table knives to pry off the room’s nameplate. He replaced it with the one that said The Alberta Room.

This article is the first in a series which reflect information from the Petroleum History Society’s current Oil Sands Oral History Project, which is recording the stories of oilsands pioneers in their own words. As with the society’s previous oral history projects, transcripts and recordings will reside in Calgary’s Glenbow Archives. Peter McKenzie-Brown is a member of the team of researchers/writers behind the project.

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