With resource royalties which are dramatically lower than they were under former premier Ralph Klein1 (see chart below) contributing to an ongoing string of provincial budget deficits, Alberta's new NDP government has appointed its promised royalty review panel, which will conclude its work by the end of the year.
Unfortunately, the NDP’s panel is half the size and has less time to deliberate than former premier Ed Stelmach's much-maligned effort in 2007, making it all the more urgent for Albertans to appreciate the lessons of past royalty reviews.
Before the dawn of Alberta's Progressive Conservative dynasty (1971–2015), political economist and industry consultant Michael Tanzer highlighted "the modus operandi of the major oil companies – their penchant for manipulating figures, framing debates, creating myths, and threatening capital flight if favourable concessions were not forthcoming from the local governments."2
Historian Erik Lizée confirmed as much in his study of Alberta's 1972 royalty review, when our province's political and economic elites "exploited misconceptions, framed debates, and manipulated others to advance their interests ... prevent[ing] Alberta citizens from participating in meaningful debates over the development of their resources." Then, as now, the industry’s response to public scrutiny was to "threaten economic decline if a 'stable investment climate' was not maintained, raise the spectre of capital outflow, and make statements about the 'morality' of breaking contracts."3
Indeed, Stelmach's 2007 review panel "found editorials dating back to the 1940's warning of the dire consequences of almost every major [royalty] change, using the same language as the warnings given to this Panel."4
But historian David Finch reminds us, "This oppositional stance is just a negotiating tactic industry uses against an owner who always has the power – and the right – to collect an increased share." Finch adds that royalty rates had often increased following reviews – at least until the 1980s and premier Klein, whose "alliance with industry emboldened oil companies in their sense of entitlement to a publicly owned resource."5
"This oppositional stance is just a negotiating tactic industry uses against an owner who always has the power – and the right – to collect an increased share."
As I demonstrated using the industry’s own statistics in my 2010 Parkland Institute study, Misplaced Generosity, that alliance generated truly spectacular profits6 – including throughout the 2007 review, when the oilpatch's oppositional stance and emboldened entitlement had it pleading poverty regardless of reality.7
That alliance also helped insulate government and industry from the scrutiny of ordinary Albertans. As profits escalated along with energy prices, Klein pretended to have completed an internal royalty review in 2003/04, but Auditor General Fred Dunn said the government couldn’t sufficiently back up the claim.8
Asked about another supposed review years later, Klein quipped: "I don't know if it was completed or not, nor do I give a tinker's damn whether it was completed or not. I've always been satisfied that our royalty regime is proper and right. We do get our pound of flesh."9
When the oilpatch's greatest ally left office, all six candidates in the race to replace Klein as PC leader said they felt the public mood about royalties and supported a public review, even at the risk of annoying potential corporate contributors.10
The result was Stelmach's 2007 review, which has been ceaselessly misrepresented ever since.
"The energy industry has succeeded in leaving the impression that the panel produced some kind of communist-Marxist document that was egregious and outrageous," said review panel member Evan Chrapko. "In fact, we were more pro free enterprise and conciliatory in the industry's favour than much of the independent advice and international comparables indicated we needed to be."11
Fellow panel member professor Kenneth McKenzie wrote, "Alberta's fiscal terms have been favourable to the industry for some time; the recommendations would allow us to catch up. ... The new regime would remain very competitive internationally."12
According to British energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie, the 2007 panel's unimplemented recommendations would still have left Alberta as one of the cheaper places to do business in the world.13
But instead of enduring the recommended increases, the most powerful industry in the world pushed back and squeezed a string of royalty cuts and subsidies from PC governments, bringing Albertans' royalties back down below the levels during the Klein era.14
Combined with the recent fall in oil prices, those royalty cuts have gutted provincial revenue, and played no small part in the demise of the PC dynasty last May.
What's more, "Come the 2015/16 fiscal year," reports University of Calgary economist Sarah Dobson, "the situation becomes even bleaker ... [with] a potential decline in crude oil and bitumen royalty revenues of 42 to 74 per cent."15
There have been changes in the energy industry since the last reviews, but not to its modus operandi.
Albertans would do well to get informed, get involved, and help hold the industry and government to account for their stewardship of trillions in public wealth.
Ater all, they don't call our resources non-renewable for nothing.
Regan Boychuk is an independent researcher in Calgary and former research manager with Parkland Institute.
1. Total government take (royalties+land sales+taxes ÷ revenue) at the end the Klein era for conventional oil and natural gas was 44% and 58%, respectively, as reported by the 2007 royalty review. According to Alberta Energy, total government take in 2013 (the most recent year reported) was 36% and 29%, respectively. See chart above.
The large proportion of new conventional production enjoying 0% – 5% royalties under post-Klein royalty curves at lower prices and "horizontal holidays" ensures current government take is significantly lower today than 2013. See note 15.
2. Michael Tanzer, The Political Economy of International Oil and the Underdeveloped Countries (1969) quoted in Erik Lizée, "Rhetoric and reality: Albertans and their oil industry under Peter Lougheed", University of Alberta Department of History and Classics MA thesis, Spring 2010, p. 14.
3. Lizée, "Rhetoric and reality", pp. 28, 50.
4. Alberta Royalty Review Panel, "Our fair share: Report to the Hon. Lyle Oberg, Minister of Finance", September 2007, p. 54.
5. David Finch, "The great royalty debate", Alberta Views (Calgary), vol. 11, no. 2 (March 2008), p. 41.
6. Regan Boychuk, "Misplaced generosity: Extraordinary profits in Alberta’s oil and gas industry", Parkland Institute, November 2010. In reply to government and industry responses to the report, see Regan Boychuk, "New report, old excuses", Progressive Economics Forum, 26 November 2010.
7. "'It's a myth out there that this is a hugely profitable business,' Mr. Laut of Canadian Natural told the royalty review panel. Mr. Laut routinely presents a different picture to investors. …Mr. Laut said its Horizon project will produce a 'wall of cash flow' of nearly $1-billion annually (with oil at $45 a barrel) that will be 'sustainable for decades.'" David Ebner, "As big oil pumps out profit, Alberta’s take is shrinking", Globe and Mail, 18 August 2007, p. B6.
Between 1999 and 2008, Alberta’s conventional oil and natural gas industry enjoyed more than $121 billion in excess/unearned pre-tax profits – more than a quarter of which accrued in 2007 and 2008. Companies involved in bitumen production from 1997–2008 exchanged $19.3 billion in royalties/land sales for $205.5 billion worth of Alberta’s natural wealth, 80–90% of their profits being excess/unearned. See Boychuk, "Misplaced generosity".
8. Archie McLean, "Gov't accused of fudging report on royalty collection", Edmonton Journal, 14 November 2007, p. B5.
9. Jason Fekete, "Tory leadership candidates question report calling royalty rates acceptable", Calgary Herald, 13 July 2006, p. B6.
10. Gordon Jaremko, "Royalty scheme questions becoming top public concern", Edmonton Journal, 29 June 2006, pp. E1ff.
By January 2007, 79% of Albertans supported a royalty review that included public consultation. Cameron Strategy poll reported in Jason Fekete, "Alberta launches royalty review", Calgary Herald, 14 February 2007, pp. E1ff. Conducted 22–30 January 2007, the survey of 812 adult Albertans had a margin of error +/-4% 19 times out of 20.
11. Gary Lamphier, "Energy royalties: Responding to the critics", Edmonton Journal, 20 October 2007), pp. E1ff.
12. Kenneth J. McKenzie, "Alberta’s energy 'take' lagging world", Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, 21 September 2007.
13. David Ebner, "Report finds Alberta still a bargain, even with higher royalties", Globe and Mail, 26 September 2007, p. B3.
14. See former senior advisor on royalty policy at Alberta Energy Jim Roy, "Billions foregone: The decline in Alberta oil and gas royalties", Parkland Institute, April 2015.
15. Sarah Dobson, "Peering into Alberta’s darkening future: How oil prices impact Alberta’s royalty revenues", University of Calgary School of Public Policy Research Papers, vol. 8, no. 14 (March 2015), pp. i, 3.