Friday, October 19, 2007

Cambridge Strategies' Most Recent Column for LaPresse

Here is our regular column that was translated into French and published in LaPresse in Montreal yesterday. We introduced them to some of the realities around the Royalty Review. We have received some interesting replies from Quebec already.

What do socialist regimes and Alberta have in common? Quite a lot, if leading voice in the energy industry are to be believed.

From the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to Deutsche Bank Securities to the President and CEO of the government-created energy giant EnCana, there is strong and resolute opposition to an expert panel’s recommendation that Alberta revise its energy royalties.

In an article entitled “The Bolivarian Republic of Alberta,” Deutsche Bank compared the findings of the Oil Sands Royalty Review to something out of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. This is an astonishing reaction to a government-commissioned report produced by economists and business executives, which recommends reducing royalties on most conventional oil and gas and increasing royalties on oil sands development.

The logic behind the recommendations is underlined by Alberta’s Auditor General Fred Dunn. His report, following on the heels of the royalty review, noted that Alberta’s current royalty system isn’t working. Dunn found that the Alberta royalty share had “fallen below stated government revenue targets” and that an additional $1billion per year in royalty payments could be charged “without stifling industry profitability.”

Industry is threatening to pull investment from Alberta unless Premier Ed Stelmach rejects the royalty review – and the conventional wisdom has it that the premier will bow to industry pressure.

Yet the premier has nothing to lose by standing up to the industry bullies. Stelmach, the Ukrainian-speaking premier who was taught English by nuns while recovering in hospital from a boyhood accident, isn’t the kind of leader who would ever be at ease in Calgary’s elite boardrooms.

After the failure of their favoured candidate Jim Dinning to win the premiership, the Calgary elite spoke sneeringly of “Farmer Ed.” Now that disdain (mepris) has turned into alarm. The Calgary elite and their apologists all their accusations, ignores the basic fact: Albertans own the resource, the energy companies are tenants who have been granted access rights.

Citizens of Alberta have never been so focused, so furious, at so many levels and in so many ways over their government's incompetence and the arrogance and intimidation efforts by some energy industry players.

The energy industry strategy going into the province-wide royalty hearings was flawed. Some of their presentations appeared to be intentionally misleading. They cited an expert consultant’s report that was 10 years old. The royalty review panel led by retired forestry executive Bill Hunter asked the same expert consultant to update his report and he found the Alberta royalties were among the lowest in the world.

If anything, the “Our Fair Share” report from the Royalty Review Panel is conservative in its recommendation of the “fair share” Albertans ought to draw from the natural resources they own. That goes beyond adjusting royalty rates. It comes down to smart, efficient stewardship of the resources that belong to Albertans – now and in the future.

If the royalty review recommendations are adopted, Alberta will remain extremely competitive in the global market. Charging a fair-market rent will give us a much more flexible opportunity to design and build a future of sustainable prosperity. Alberta’s unique value proposition lies in supplementing today’s hydrocarbon wealth with alternative energy, green energy, and clean energy. We can use additional revenues to aggressively pursue carbon capture and sequestration, clean coal technology (including gasification, hydrogen production and coal bed methane extraction), and biofuels/biomass energy.

That said, Premier Stelmach needs to be exceptionally skilful in securing Albertans their fair share or the energy economy, without derailing investor confidence in the province. He must respond to the public desire for enhanced environmental standards and value-added processing of Alberta’s resources. The threats by energy companies could indeed lead to some short-term economic turmoil – but the premier has already said he will not be intimidated by anyone.