'Canada Is Being Outplayed' at Oil Wealth Game

But we can win says economist Robyn Allan. Last in a series on Norway's petro-policies and lesson

[Editor's note: The Tyee sent veteran energy issues journalist Mitchell Anderson to Norway to learn how it amassed a $600 billion oil savings fund for its population of under 5 million, a stark contrast to Canada. To finish the series we invited him to share his views on how those lessons could be applied here. With input from economist Robyn Allan, here they are.]

Why do we tolerate homelessness and poverty in Canada? Underfunding for our schools and health care system? Why is our government eliminating 20,000 public sector jobs in a supposed effort to balance the books?

Imagine instead if Canada was a country capable of developing a national oil strategy similar to what has been achieved in Norway. This tiny nation enjoys full employment and enviable social programs, has no public debt, $600 billion in the bank, and remarkable public buy-in about their petroleum industry. Could we do it here? Do we have the guts to seize our economic destiny?

Such a system might seek to maximize employment, tax revenues and environmental protection -- exactly the opposite motivations of most extractive industries. There is another public policy goal that is of no interest to private companies: the energy security of our nation.

Seen through this lens, how is Canada doing? Abysmally, by four measures:

1. Dependency. Even with our vast oil wealth, Canada currently relies on other countries for about 50 per cent of our supply -- so-called "unethical oil" from the volatile Middle East. Proposals to pipe unrefined bitumen from western Canada to Asia will increase this dangerous dependence since Alberta will have to import vast amounts of condensate from the Middle East to dilute thick bitumen enough for pipeline transport.

2. Staying in the red. Alberta has been unable to balance the books since 2007, burning through $17.7 billion of past oil wealth, with another $3 billion deficit forecast for the coming budget.

3. Draining at full tilt. Labour and production costs are through the roof, at least until the next employment bust. Both the Alberta Federation of Labour and the late premier Peter Lougheed have both called for slower the pace of oil sands growth. Ten proposed upgraders have been cancelled since the 2007 recession, replaced instead with pipeline proposals for unprocessed diluted bitumen. With resource values rising relative to global currencies, what's the rush?

4. Getting global black eye. The oil sands have such a credibility problem the Alberta government spends $25 million a year countering "baseless" criticism from environmental groups.

Robyn Allan's prescriptions

Robyn Allan thinks we can do better. She is a British Columbia economist, former CEO of the provincial insurance corporation and outspoken critic of the Northern Gateway proposal to pipe diluted bitumen to Kitimat. She also believes the recent retreat from value-added processing in Alberta is not only a threat to the B.C. coastline, but to the entire Canadian economy. In an interview for this series she told The Tyee:

"Canada has an energy strategy, but it is being developed in a handful of boardrooms of multinational oil companies and national oil companies of foreign governments. And that strategy seems to be to extract oil sands bitumen as quickly as possible, mix it with distillate imported in increasing amounts from the Middle East, and move it down pipelines to Asia and the U.S. Gulf Coast. And that strategy is going to hollow out Canada's oil sector, move us away from creating jobs and value-added refining, and increase pressures on our exchange rate and the non-oil sectors of our economy. And when the boom becomes a bust, we won't have a strong economic fabric to fall back on."

So why does she feel so many state-owned oil companies now clamouring for a piece of the oil sands?

"More than 80 per cent of global oil reserves are controlled by state own oil companies, and there's good reason for that. Canada is the only major oil-exporting country in the world without a national oil company. Of the remaining global oil resources open for private sector investment, Canada has the majority. That's why national oil companies from China, Korea and Norway, and now maybe Kuwait and India, are coming here to buy up our resources -- it's the last big game in town."

Allan believes our country is becoming dangerously exposed in a world increasingly short of energy, especially as we allow state-owned interests from other nations to snap up our globally-strategic resources.

"Canada is being outplayed. We are losing control of our natural resources. We're losing control of our environmental standards. And we're losing the ability to upgrade and add value in Canada. We're not even beginning to use the leverage in this country that we have to control and manage the pace of our development and ensure that oil resource returns come to the people of Canada."

So what can we do about it? Allan feels one of the key problems is that our petroleum continues to be sold in American, not Canadian currency.

"When the price of oil goes up, the value of our dollar goes up and this creates problems not only for the manufacturing sector but for our oil industry as well. Because we trade our oil in U.S. dollars, any Canadian oil producer finds that their profits fall when they sell their product in U.S. dollars and have to repatriate those revenues into Canadian dollars. The ability of the oil industry to expand and grow is hamstrung by an appreciation of the Canadian dollar. The oil sector itself hurts, it not just manufacturing, tourism, forestry and other sectors."

She also sees a linkage between our inflated currency and the cancelled upgrading facilities in Alberta.

"We need to address the issue that maybe because our currency has appreciated in value, it's not as economic to build upgraders in Canada. We have a natural resource in Canada that's traded in U.S. dollars. Why? When Russia decided to trade their oil with China they elected not to do it in U.S. dollars, but their own currencies. We have to start thinking about what is in the long-term interest of Canada, not what is in the best interests of a handful of oil companies."

Upgrade here first, then ship

By choosing Canada instead of China, Allan believes Albertans would benefit from higher prices and greater economic stability. Nation building through such mutually profitable arrangements might prove far more productive than past interprovincial posturing.

"One of reasons that bitumen is not capturing the value that western producers want is that its not good enough quality. So if we upgraded it in Alberta into a product that North America wants, we might solve so many problems. Everybody in Canada could win if less expensive western Canadian crude got to eastern Canada.

"At the recent Northern Gateway Hearings in Edmonton, the Joint Review Panel was told by Enbridge's expert witnesses that right now Eastern Canada is buying imported crude at $20 to $30 more than the price of western Canadian crude. If that's the case, that works out to about 15 cents a litre at the pump. Western producers could get a price premium of five cents a litre over what they are getting now, the refiners in eastern Canada could save five cents a litre on their crude supply and consumers could save five cents a litre when they fill up at the pump.

"So if that happened, producers and refiners would make more money and consumers would spend less money. That's got to have a stimulative effect on our Canadian economy."

Allan points out that shipping upgraded crude rather than bitumen would also require half as much pipeline capacity since we would not need to build supply lines for imported condensate. And most importantly, upgraded Alberta crude should be moving east rather than unrefined bitumen moving west.

"TransCanada Pipelines have said they are looking at converting one of their natural gas pipelines to ship Western Canadian crude to eastern Canada. That could be up to 800,000 barrels a day and would be a tremendous boost to the Canadian economy. We should be focusing everything we can to get that to happen. And the way to get that to happen is to say no to the Northern Gateway pipeline. The best thing that British Columbia could do is restrict bitumen from coming into this province, period. That would essentially be a little bit of tough love to Alberta."

The late premier Peter Lougheed urged Albertans to "think like an owner." That determination to do what's in the interest of Canadians rather than companies is what Allan seems to be championing as well.

"I would hope that the real issue here is what can we do to support and develop the future health and long-term growth of the Canadian economy. We need to stop responding to the preferences of corporations that don't have the Canadian national interest at heart. They don't. They're not meant to.

"Every single time issues are raised such as energy security in Canada, value-added and upgrading, concerns over the appreciation of our dollar -- the oil industry goes crazy. And the reason they do is because these are serious issues that need to be addressed and they could be addressed relatively easily for our long-term benefit. What the oil industry doesn't yet understand is that many of these changes would be for their long-term benefit as well."

A challenging question

The Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines will obviously benefit China and the shareholders of private oil companies, but what is in Canada's interest? Are we even asking that question?

At the end of this series I'm left reflecting on the blunt advice of Norwegian petroleum engineer Rolf Wiborg: "You have to leave the feudal thinking and leave the idea that people coming to exploit you have the right to tell you what to do.... It can be done, but do the Canadian people have the power and the will? Do they have the collectiveness and guts to do it?"

How about it Canada? Do we?

The Tyee, 3 Oct 2012
Byline: Mitchell Anderson

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