Author and journalist Andrew Nikiforuk addresses the Parkland Institute’s annual conference in Edmonton Sunday (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

By adopting an energy policy founded on low royalties and pipeline development, the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley squandered an opportunity to implement a program that could have strengthened Alberta’s economy while preparing it to deal with the inevitable decline in fossil fuel demand, author Andrew Nikiforuk told the final session of the annual Parkland Institute Conference Sunday.

In other words, oversupplying a global market that doesn’t need more oilsands bitumen will only lower prices, argued the author and journalist who has written about Alberta’s energy industry for three decades. “That’s Economics 101.”

Peter Lougheed, Alberta’s first Conservative premier (Photo: Government of Alberta).

Instead, the Notley Government has adopted an energy development policy little different from that of preceding Conservative governments or the United Conservative Party Opposition, Mr. Nikiforuk asserted, arguing that such an approach is more likely to intensify the province’s economic pain than ease it.

Shielding the industry from market forces through rock bottom royalties that effectively act as subsidies and using pipelines to create a supply glut of low-quality refinery feedstock is incompetent governance, whether it’s done by New Democrats or Conservatives, Mr. Nikiforuk said.

His message, delivered at the University of Alberta, is not likely to be welcomed by the political elites in Alberta, of course. They need not worry, despite Mr. Nikiforuk’s stature in Western Canadian energy journalism, there appeared to be no mainstream media journalists there to take note of what he had to say.

Ironically, Mr. Nikiforuk said, what the NDP should have done was adopt the program of the province’s first Conservative premier, who came to power in 1971. “Peter Lougheed was the only Canadian leader who came up with a program for dealing with resource wealth.”

Mr. Nikiforuk reminded his listeners of Premier Lougheed’s six famous principles of resource management:

  • Act like an owner
  • Collect your fair share
  • Save for a rainy day
  • Add value
  • Go slowly
  • Emphasize competence in government

“That is considered today a radical program!”

Instead, he said, Conservatives and New Democrats have both “failed to recognize the oil and gas price collapse signifies a structural shift. There is no plan for dealing with this shift, other than praying for another boom, or a pipeline.”

The oil price bust in 2014 “exposed how incompetent the Tories had become at fiscal management,” Mr. Nikiforuk recalled. That circumstance handed the NDP “a rare opportunity,” not only to form government, but to reform it. Alas, like the Conservatives, the NDP, too, “failed to notice that as oil production rises dramatically in this province, our revenue stream is becoming less and less.”

Rachel Notley, Alberta’s first NDP premier (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

In truth, it’s certain they noticed. Finding the courage to sell a contrarian strategy like Mr. Nikiforuk’s in the current political atmosphere, though, would be another matter entirely.

Mr. Nikiforuk said rock bottom royalties – the policy of the Klein Government perpetuated ever since, most recently by the Notley Government’s 2015 royalty review – essentially subsidizes industry profits, especially those of corporations with their own refining capacity elsewhere. At the same time, it does little for the economy. He said the policy also leaves taxpayers holding the bag for the inevitable clean up – estimated by one credible analysis to be over $260 billion.

As for the claim more pipelines will result in a narrower price differential thanks to new markets in Asia for Alberta bitumen, Mr. Nikiforuk said, that is a pipe dream that defies the laws of economics.

Never mind, he said, that the single study saying this, done for Kinder Morgan Inc. as a sales pitch when it was the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project’s sole proponent – and now apparently taken as gospel by the provincial and federal governments alike – “is bogus.”

He asserted that the study been debunked by professional economists on its five key points: that no other pipelines will be built for 20 years; that oil prices will remain around $100 US; that the Canadian dollar would remain on par with its U.S. counterpart; that all heavy oil is subject to a discount in North America; and of course that increasing the supply will result in bitumen fetching higher prices in Asia.

“Pushing pipelines to export your product to Asia is not a good idea,” he stated. “Somehow the government of this province doesn’t understand the law of supply and demand.”

More recent research by agencies like the World Bank, Mr. Nikiforuk added, indicates “the best market for Alberta’s heavy oil is still in the U.S., the U.S. Gulf Coast.”

All that increasing supply will do is lower the price, Mr. Nikiforuk averred, noting that existing pipelines are not even running at full capacity due to the way space in the lines are allocated to producers, resulting in capacity being lost to “air barrels” as producers game the system to try to ensure they have the access their profitability demands.

Whether corporations with refining capacity in the United States want it or not, adding value in Alberta is the only way not to ship jobs and economic benefits down the pipeline, Mr. Nikiforuk told his audience, let alone keep Canada’s international carbon-emission pledges.

He continued: “Adding value. That’s where the money is. That’s where the jobs are. We’re not doing it. We’re shipping more and more raw bitumen.”

As for royalties, they remain far too low, especially considering the burgeoning liabilities that are being left by the industry, he concluded in response to a questioner. “If you’re not going to add value, then, goddammit, you’d better tax these companies that are making billions in profits!”

Mr. Nikiforuk’s passionate advocacy notwithstanding, Alberta seems likely to continue to ignore Mr. Lougheed’s principles in favour of letting volatility rule prices and carbon inputs rise as international demand falls. It won’t be pretty.

Mr. Nikiforuk is the winner of several National Magazine Awards for his journalism, the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction, the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award, and the Science in Society Journalism Award. The Calgary-based writer regularly covers the energy industry and the environment for The Tyee, an online newspaper published in Vancouver.

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  1. The Sturgeon refinery when construction was approved in late 2012 had a projected price tag of $5.7 billion dollars, this has increased to to $9.7 billion dollars in April of 2018. Once all 10 sections of the plant are fully operational(projected to be early 2019) this plant will be able to process 79000 barrels a day of diluted bitumen, at present it is refining synthetic crude instead as the plant isn’t fully operational yet. It would take 7.5 plants this size process the same amount of diluted bitumen that would flow through the Trans Mountain expansion and with such a high cost per barrel of refining capacity there is much debate if it can make a profit. You would also require new pipelines to sell the product.

    Refineries on the Gulf Coast were built to refine heavy oil from Venezuala and Mexico, due to the destruction of the economy in Venezuala by incompetent governance these refineries cannot get enough oil and recently have been paying higher than WTI prices for heavy oil(What discount? Gulf coast paying premium prices for Canadian oil Geoffrey Morgan Financial Post). Now there is no doubt they only have so much capacity.

    The NDP while in opposition argued for higher royalties for years. Once in power they studied and compared our royalty system with others in North America and concluded ours were fair. Certainly rules and funding regarding reclamation need to be improved and updated. Certainly no easy answers, enjoy your day.

    1. I’m not sure you’re understanding the analysis. Once the bitumen is upgraded and refined, it gets much closer to world prices. I think the industries efforts to equate bitumen with oil have worked well……….and most folks glide over the fact that Western Canadian Select has nothing select about it…….its diluted bitumen. But once the Koch brothers put it through their refinery in Michigan…….they sell it at world prices.

      And while we might lament the 1`3 bucks a barrel our dilbit is going for, last I heard………the Kochs…and the members of the Big Five in the tarsands who have refining capacity are thrilled……..the cheaper they can get our junk feedstock, the more profits they are making. They are making billions a year.

  2. Premier Lougheed’s six famous principles of resource management:
    1) Act like an owner
    2) Collect your fair share
    3) Save for a rainy day
    4) Add value
    5) Go slowly
    6) Emphasize competence in government

    It always amuses me when NDP supporters compare their hero Rachel Notley to past political figures.
    Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons compared Notley to Margaret Thatcher. Notley compared herself to President Nixon. Both staunch progressives, as we all know.
    But the most frequent comparison is to Premier Peter Lougheed.

    Climenhaga: “Mr. Mandel will be targeting progressive Conservatives who can’t stand Mr. Kenney and who still aren’t comfortable with the NDP, despite Premier Rachel Notley’s passable imitation of PC premier Peter Lougheed.”

    Comment on this blog: “Perhaps it could be said that the ballot question for right wing voters is to vote for the now neo-liberal populist harmful UCP type of conservatism or, vote for the Rachel Notley NDP which emulates more, the more honourable fiscal Peter Lougheed style of conservatism. Some of us do recognize that and again, will still vote for the AB NDP.”

    As Mr. Nikiforuk’s list of Lougheed principles makes clear, Notley has absolutely repudiated Lougheed’s legacy on energy. Notley is doing a passable imitation of PC premier Alison Redford, perhaps.
    NDP supporters are blinded by their partisan loyalty to Notley. They refuse to hold her accountable for her govt’s bad decisions and broken promises (royalties). She is setting AB up for economic disaster. Enabled by uncritical NDP supporters.

    1. However, would we be better off with the UCP in power? Would the PCs have done any differently if they had remained in power in 2015? And when you have someone like Kenney constantly screaming about debt and pipelines. how can Notley do anything different than what she’s done? We Albertans, as a group, are really stupid. We vote for idiots and I suspect Kenney will be the next premier. Do you plan to be as hard on him as you are on Notley? Because he will undoubtedly make everything worse. By far.

      1. “How can Notley do anything different than what she’s done?”
        No need for Notley to pander to UCP supporters. They wouldn’t vote NDP even if Notley built a billion pipelines. Instead, she’s just alienating her own.

        When it comes to oilsands expansion, Notley and Kenney are on the same page.
        Notley’s oilsands expansion agenda locks AB into fossil fuel development and rising emissions for decades. Putting Canada’s inadequate targets out of reach.

        Trudeau’s and Notley’s brand of denialism lulls the public into a dangerous complacency and paralysis.
        Notley has led many of her progressive followers to embrace a fossil-fuel future and deny reality. By pushing pipelines, the NDP sends a clear message that climate change is not a global emergency. Unforgivable.

        Far from being the “lesser of two evils”, Notley is actually worse for climate than Kenney.
        NDP policy eliminates the progressive option and all hope for real climate action in AB.
        Playing on her undeserved credibility on climate and otherwise progressive values, Notley is far more likely to get pipelines built. Kenney will be impotent and isolated.

        The AB NDP was a force for good in opposition. Now we have zero oil industry critics in the AB Legislature. And there won’t be any after 2019.
        Banished to the opposition benches, the NDP will be able to say nothing about oilsands expansion, oil & gas pollution, and climate inaction — because they sided with Big Oil when in office.

        How can Notley brand herself “progressive” when she knows that climate change disproportionately affects women and children, and the global poor?
        The environment underlies all we do, the economy, and life itself. If you are not progressive on climate change and the environment, don’t call yourself progressive.
        Oilsands expansion only makes sense if the world fails to take real action on climate change. Trudeau and Notley are betting on failure. If failure on the all-encompassing issue of our time is acceptable to you, then, by all means, vote NDP.

        P.S Reality check: A NDP win in 2019 is not on the menu. The numbers indicate UCP victory is inevitable. Mathematically, it is impossible for the NDP to prevail against a united conservative party.

        Notley was always a one-term premier. Her mandate was to stand up to Big Oil, reject petro-politics, respect science, take real leadership on climate change, put AB on the right track for a sustainable future, and show Albertans what principled, progressive, rational, scientifically literate govt looks like.
        Betraying progressive principles and throwing your friends under the bus in vain pursuit of power is folly.
        Notley’s miscalculation will cost her the support of NDP voters appalled by her policies and tactics. But it won’t cost her the election. The NDP don’t stand a chance.

  3. There is little reason to wonder why Nikiforuk wins these awards; he is one of the very few Canadian voices that clearly lay out the facts of the petro-industry.

    As for Courage,it is not a function of the environment. One has courage or one doesn’t. Notley and her gang, most Albertans actually, don’t have it.
    If there were a different “political atmosphere” than that which is extant today there would be no need for courage. There would be no fear in doing what is right in the petro-business. In a “political atmosphere’’ that was more thoughtful and fact-oriented and less corrupt and secretive it would be simple expediency and business acumen that controlled the rate of production of a publicly owned resource or determined the rental rate for access to that resource. In a different “political atmosphere’’ courage would not even be discussed.
    It is only in this particular political climate that fear of doing what is right, fear of the repercussions for doing what is right, is a valid consideration in decision-making. Courage is the act of doing the right thing despite your fear. Notley and her gang are not courageous.

  4. Just listened to the Premier talk about her plan for the future. She, and we have a number of really intractable problems. These arise from any calendar you care to look at.
    First, it is the 21rst Century. The IPCC says we (that is, humanity) have a dozen years to get GHG emissions under control. No matter how you slice it, that’s going to put the petro-biz growth model on hold, if not into down-right decline.
    No new petro-investment is going to have an IRR in that time period worth a plugged nickel. These projects require 30-40 years of profitable operation to make the up-front investment worthwhile.

    Also the Alberta petro-industry is heading towards a trillion dollar clean-up bill. At what point does wisdom suggest to stop making things worse? There comes a time that switching from making the mess to cleaning up the mess becomes the responsible course of action.

    The third problem on the calendar is of course, next spring’s election. As has been pointed out way too many times, no amount of long-term planning or even awareness of long term effects is going to help Notley in this election.
    So why not begin to regulate this industry into the utility it has become. It’s long past time to stop treating this industry as a bunch of wildcatters and pioneers; they’re not. It’s a utility. The only likely plan that will stick for Notley is to begin to harness the excesses of this industry for the benefit of Albertans.

  5. I think Lougheed’s foremost idea on oil sands was that it needed to be developed in a planned and orderly way. Of course, Premier Klein and subsequent PC leaders threw that out the window and it turned into a wild west gold rush style of development when oil prices were high.

    One of the problems, and as it turns out now the crucial issue, is pipeline capacity was not developed in conjunction with the oil sands. Now, I suppose those developing the oil sands were busy on their own projects and just ASSUMED the pipelines would be built by someone else. Although the time line probably appeared sufficient back in 2008 or 2012, there were never really any guarantees more pipelines would be built. It is not just a problem on the Canadian side of the border either. Unfortunately EVERY major pipeline project, including both going through the US, have faced a number of political, environmental and legal hurdles that slowed them down considerably and could potentially stop some or all of them. So for now, we have hit the wall, where increasing oil sands production is now equal to or exceeding current pipeline capacity. We can shout, jump or do anything in frustration, but it does not matter – the problem will not be solved tomorrow. If our energy industry is lucky, perhaps one of the pipelines will go ahead in a year or so.

    Now, I would like to think corporate executives are not totally stupid, the solution seems obvious – if you can’t move it, don’t produce it. We don’t need the government to tell them that and they don’t even need to meet or get together to figure it out. As the saying goes, stop the insanity (in this case, of producing more).

  6. And starting over the weekend, we in Nova Scotia are being bombarded with Alberta Government TV commercials once again. The completely idiotic type fulminated by Notley. There’s a new one but they are also playing the same old one we got all Spring when Notley was in one of her periodic snits. We are assured that Alberta is NOT going to pump MORE “oil”, no indeed. No, we are going to get MORE for this product because of pipeline expansion and access to markets. Yessir, we are assured, it’s a win-win plan for Canadians. Happy citizens will be treated to more hospitals and other civic niceties all because Alberta pumped more of something they are NOT going to be pumping more of but getting paid more for it. Sure. Right on. Yeah.

    Moronic bullshite. And aired during Coronation Street no less so far tonight. Gotta try to warp the brains of seniors, I guess. Anyone who can read knows there is a world oil glut at the moment. It’s why the price of conventional oil is sinking – duh, even Farmer Whassisname leading the comments should know this, but apparently doesn’t. So no wonder dilbit is worth bugger all – who in hell wants that sludge? At $20 a barrel maybe. Why pay more? You can get all you want for 20 bucks.

    Frankly, the only decent words worth reading here today are provided by DJC, the article itself. And if he can do it, he should tell Notley to turn off those stupid TV ads. We do not need being preached at here in the Atlantic Region by someone who hasn’t a clue whether she’s a social democrat or a lickspittle for the (foreign) oil barons looking at hundreds of square miles of almost worthless tarsands, the guck of the ages. Logic does not seem to figure in most Albertans’ thinking – you’ve gone off the deep end in thinking you’re so special.

    I’ve had enough of the endless posturing.

    Cease and desist with this provincial navel-gazing for the sanity of us all. Heard it all before and nothing’s changed beyond all Canadians being roped in to pay for a rickety end-of-life pipeline. and still Queen Rachel isn’t happy. Imperator-in-waiting Kenney will have as much effect on international oil prices as a gnat gnawing on an elephant, exactly the same as Notley. Sweet bugger all.

  7. Peter Lougheed was a true conservative, an authentic namesake Progressive Conservative, looking out for Alberta society as a whole, not only farseeing, in the prudential sense, for his citizens’ sake, but taking the political long view, in the partisan sense, for his party’s sake, his trust that the Heritage Fund would hold the PCs in good stead for generations to come well reasoned: the oil resource would surely run out one day, but the prudent oil-industry legacy fund would always be handy as a constantly accumulating and reassuring meter of prosperity in the meantime, provide an unarguable record of success that would recommend the PCs as the best party to run the province—which was also quite true, at least back then—election after election; and even when that fateful day of depletion came, the long-predicted inevitability shocking and stupifying, naturally, the blissfully inattentive electorate typically taken unawares, they’ll breathe a sign of relief that they’d been taken care of all along, thus celebrating practical, traditional Tory principles, but also rewarding the PCs as if an almost supernatural blessing.

    In reality, it was a lucky happenstance of ordinary nature that afforded Lougheed what most Canadian premiers would consider a politcal luxury. Knowing this, he charted a course for a long but safe passage by sticking to the best, communitarian principles of old-fashion Toryism, leaving no one out, a place for everyone, with an ethically sound confidence that kept the PC afloat for an astounding four-plus decades—even when neo-liberal pirates eventually commandeered the helm, pillaging the sacred Heritage Fund, tattering the fabric of social prosperity and poisoning the ancient sea floor that has encapsulated the black goo of ancient sunshine far below for so many tens of millions of years whole oceans dried up and whole mountain ranges rolled by like rocky waves.

    But Lougheed didn’t game the system for privateers’—or anybody eles’s—sake; the only gaming he did was jogging from door to door on the campaign trail, even after his incumbency was solidly assured. What he was game for was protecting Alberta’s growing petroleum industry and sovereignty over its resources, like a sow grizzly her cubs, as he showed during PET’s National Energy Program—but without so much as a hint of slick, politcal disingenuousness. He was real, and a real conservative, whose reputation for honesty and a farsighted plan for the province kept the PCs in power even after it turned a different course, one he unfortunately Had to witness—and disapprove of—before departing a well-lived life. This course change was intended to carry on neither his nor Alberta’s oil legacy, but rather to spite it through increasing disingenuous means until some of the rats, no honour among them, abandoned the listing hulk as neo-right buzzards picked the carcass before scuttling it beneath a rippled politcal sea that bore the little NDP dinghy on a fresh breeze into the safe haven of the provincial legislature and Her Majesty’s cabinet.

    Premier Rachel Notley’s apparent reluctance to turn the ship of state back onto course has been ascribed to her being gulled or cowed—or goosed—by Big Bitumen, but her circumstance is much more difficult than the young Lougheed’s ever was. The longest view she can take with her party’s mortal enemy KKeKenney stirring his pail-of-shit “ethos” into high lather is, at least for now, the status quo, as unLougheedian—imprudent, infeasible and irresponsible— as it is. A lot has changed over the last half century: not only have neo-right usurpers of the nominal conservative party discredited themselves and their policies, but the sweetness and light of Lougheed’s conventional oil days have run out, the heirs to that prosperous heyday now pounding sand well below the bottom of the bonanza barrel and, added to the rage and fury of the holy self-righteous correspondents of inaudible, canine virtue signals is now the sincere concerns of the altogether more cosmopolitan Albertan society: the environment—and, finally, when you have once-rock-solid conservative voters from the still substantial farm sector beginning to voice resentments over pipelines cross-crossing their fields and pastures, leaky, abandoned natural gas well heads, fracking-contaminated groundwater wells and toxic sour gas flares (some w’ a webo tay much zeal), the fair land upon which Lougheed staked his province and party’s future on has become inhabited by voters as much changed as it has. There’s no politcal luxury for Notley like there was for Lougheed. Not to besmirch Peter’s patter, Rachel’s path is much different and more difficult.

    It’s a real fix: doubtless she doesn’t fancy her government a one-term break from the status quo, as it’s malignantly turned out to be. But to obtain the luxury of even a peep at a farther horizon she will first have to win another mandate. Thus her focus can only be on KKeKenney, toe to toe, no hard math for the surly electorate, no hard truths which she knows carry no weight with her unabashedly mendacious, malicious, malfeasant opponent. It’s not to say she doesn’t have, or is incapable of, the kind of farsightedness Lougheed was afforded, it just that it won’t do her any good against the poisonous UCP rival in the approaching election.

    While it might be shrewd to deprive an enemy of advantage, and certainly of ammunition he won’t hesitate to use, it seems to me that, discounting the far-KKeKenneyed faction, a substantial proportion of the Alberta electorate want the reassurance of a good, prudent and sensible plan for the way ahead, not revenge for a bright black future of dilbit and fracking flares denied. Notley can refute as much rhetorical garbage from the UCPee-ers as they can dish out, and she can stand on her head for Big Bitumen, but she has to somehow reassure she has a farsighted plan that she’ll roll out after taking care of her partisan fix. Is that even possible?—and could she win this crucial next election by deploying a cogent plan somewhere, presumably, between hooks and jabs with some pretty dirty fighters on the right?

    It seems there must be a cogent plan for the long view, the resource being so vast. But for those who really don’t pay attention to much outside their next pay check, who are most susceptible to UCP fearmongering, I’m not surprised Notley has taken the course she has—I just can’t believe she doesn’t have a good reason for it, at least for now, and I think it has almost everything to do with not letting opportunity slip from her grasp. I think she’s as pragmatic as she is smart and committed.

    If I were an Albertan again I’d sure trust her to roll out a cogent plan for the tar sands if she manages to retain government in next year’s election. I wouldn’t need it explained to me to vote for her party. Anybody the least bit interested in what that plan might be can already see the basic outline: a slow conversion of the way bitumen is exploited so it can be done with less and less environmental degradation, mass-production wind-down in a way that workers are treated fairly, and of course a legacy fund that future governments of any stripe can proudly point to. She might not have the luck of Lougheed, but these possibilities do exist with measured feasibility. I don’t think she sees a point in belabouring these potentials. She’d have better luck poking fun of her opponent’s fantasies (which I hope she does).

    Really, I see the biggest threat to decent a plan for Albertans’ future as being Jason KKeKenney and his UCP.

  8. This is what happens when you leave the economy to the private sector.

    There is no open market. It is dominated by large private interests try to get all it can and to heck with anyone else. It’s the survival of the fittest and most aggressive. Now we see where that lead Alberta. She got enough votes in 2015 to form a majority government and could have done it again if the NDP and executed its promises. Those who identify as conservatives are never going to support the NDP so why try. They will vote UCP even though Kenney will adopt neoconservative austerity measures that are guaranteed to harm working people.

    The good times are not coming back in the oil patch for several reasons. There is too much oil at present. The US knowing it is the only customer is always going to play hardball with Canada. Global warming is changing our world whether we like it or not. New industries are coming up that will make oil decline and are just as profitable as oil once was and are much less cyclical and prone to the ups and downs of the resource sector. If interest rates continue to rise, investing in oil production will be even costlier.

    Pierre Trudeau did not wreck Alberta’s economy in the early 1980s nearly as much as high interest rates did.

  9. OIL … … so when Trudeau says we need to open our overseas market via new pipelines … “What markets are interested in dirty, unrefined OIL .. ? China ?, its his one underlying suggestive prospect client which has many other suppliers nearer at discounted prices for already refined OIL …
    so ” What markets is he in fact talking about ? “

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