With a multibillion-dollar cost blowout and year-long construction delay at the Sturgeon refinery project in Alberta, there’s a lot of blame to go around.
Nearly all of it so far has been directed at the Redford government, and with good reason. The Alberta Tories have long preached fiscal conservatism, but they practised the opposite and got stung. But they are not the only players here.
The project, a joint venture of North West Upgrading Inc. and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL), would still be a dream without government involvement. The province faced criticism three years ago that processing jobs were being piped to the United States along with the oil sands crude, and it saw an opportunity to quell that when the private sector by itself wouldn’t.
Now, with the 50-per-cent jump in the budget to $8.5-billion, announced last week, the government raised its exposure with a $300-million loan and agreed to service costs on an additional $1.5-billion of debt through tolls at the plant.
Yes, it’s a hit to Alberta taxpayers. But where was CNRL in all of this?
The company, led by chairman Murray Edwards, has a half stake in the partnership building the project, northeast of Edmonton. It will supply a quarter of the bitumen the plant will process, with the province providing the rest with the oil that it receives in lieu of cash royalties.
So Canadian Natural benefits through a return on equity from tolls, albeit a lower return following the overrun, and through the marketing of the products, including low-sulphur diesel fuel. Part of the idea is to avoid the deep discounts the raw oil gets slapped with in the open market.
Like the Alberta government, it will backstop some of the extra cost with a $300-million loan.
Perhaps more than any other company in Alberta, CNRL should have known much sooner that the budget, pegged at $5.7-billion a year ago, was going off track.
Here’s why: It had its own serious bout with skyrocketing costs when it built the first phase of its Horizon oil sands project. That development was budgeted at $6.8-billion when sanctioned in 2005.
That put it into the industry’s worst-ever period for labour shortages and inflation as companies rushed to develop oil sands riches. By the time Horizon’s first phase started up in 2009, the cost had ballooned 40 per cent to $9.7-billion.
Executives pledged it wouldn’t happen again with Horizon’s expansion phases. In fact, president Steve Laut ushered in a new era for the company when he announced it would no longer be driven by the clock. Instead, CNRL would focus on costs and if they were too high, investors would just have to wait until they weren’t.
Also, anyone who has tuned in to a CNRL quarterly conference call knows that they are not big-picture events, especially where Horizon is concerned. Executives routinely go through nut-and-bolt detail on the progress of the highly complex project.
Where was that fiscal discipline, and willingness to explain it, with the Sturgeon refinery project in recent months? Indeed, Premier Alison Redford participated in the sod-turning in September, and there was not a peep among the partners about potential overruns. In November, CNRL said only that a final cost-control estimate was being prepared.
Sure, with Horizon, the company is sole owner and its investors have shown they are willing to accept a conservative approach in exchange for lower cost risk.
With Sturgeon, CNRL is in partnership with North West, and now the government has a 25-per-cent voting right on aspects of construction, so there are various agendas at play, including touchy political ones. The company is not the mouthpiece.
However, Mr. Edwards has a major profile in Alberta, and with the public purse at stake, so does this project, which the Tories contend is still a good deal for the province.
Perhaps he could push to use more of the best of his company’s deep knowledge of major construction to keep costs under control, and his position to sway the partnership and government into alerting taxpayers sooner when they aren’t.