Labour federation says energy companies made millions exploiting government loophole

EDMONTON - The Alberta Federation of Labour says energy companies exploited a loophole in the province's drilling stimulus programs, forcing the province to spend about $2.9 billion, more than double the projected cost.

Government officials, however, say the incentive programs worked to stimulate the economy during the economic downturn and created jobs during the recession.

Federation spokesman Gil McGowan said Wednesday that documents obtained under access to information laws show it is clear the energy companies were squeezing as much out of the program as possible, at Albertans' expense.

"The governments' own staff knew that certain energy companies were gaming the system," McGowan said. "They presented that evidence to senior decision-makers within the government bureaucracy who have the ear of cabinet ministers.

"They could have taken action. They didn't."

McGowan said the federation is not against incentive programs that put people to work but that "there has to be some performance measures, there has to be some oversight.

"These foregone royalties represent the lion's share of the deficit, which the government has used to justify massive cuts to social services and public infrastructure," McGowan said.

"The government is telling Albertans the cupboard is bare for public services, but it's bare in large measure because of this irresponsible and out-of-control corporate giveaway."

Alberta's Drilling Incentive Program was announced in March 2009 to stimulate the economy during the recession.

It included three programs: the Drilling Royalty Credit, the New Well Incentive and the $30-million Orphan Well Fund.

The government originally said the incentives would cost about $1.6 billion in foregone royalty revenue over two years.

Budget documents show that in 2009, costs ballooned to $1.2 billion from the estimated $842 million. In 2010, costs surged to $1.8 billion from the original $732 million estimate.

The final price tag for the Drilling Incentive Programs was about $2.9 billion, roughly $1.3 billion over the budget.

Of that spending, the Drilling Royalty Credit accounted for $1.7 billion, more than triple the original estimated of $466 million. The New Well Incentive program cost for $1.2 billion, just over the initial estimated of $1 billion.

The documents released by the federation suggest bureaucrats knew the Drilling Royalty Credit program was going over-budget because energy companies were swapping credits on a "grey market" to increase the incentives they received.

Energy Minister Ted Morton said he was aware of the credit swapping.

"I was aware of the fact that the program was costing more than we anticipated. We looked at it, and we were getting good pick up and it was creating more jobs," Morton said.

"At the time we thought that if it gets the rigs back working again, then it's achieving its effect."

In 2009, fewer than one in five drilling rigs were working in Alberta. By 2010, that figure had climbed to one in three, due in part to the stimulus programs, Morton said.

Similarly, the number of rigs working had dropped to 141 in 2009 as a result of the recession. In 2010, 237 rigs were up and working.

Gary Leach, executive director of Small Explorers and Producers Association of Canada, said governments around the world launched stimulus packages at the time.

"I don't believe that companies were gaming the system," he said. "This wasn't a loophole. The program was designed to make sure the companies spent the money because the government wanted to make sure the companies were investing. ... These credits were designed to be transferred."

Leach said most of the money was spent in rural Alberta where "it gets turned into jobs, it gets turned into property taxes for rural areas, and it turns into royalty streams for the government.

"Two years later, I think it was a success. Nobody is looking for another one."

Edmonton Journal, Wed Mar 7 2012
Byline: Karen Kleiss

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