In the days immediately after the Teck Resources decision to pull its Frontier oil sands project application, Jason Kenney laid out a startling new ambition for his province: public ownership of Alberta oil and gas projects.
You might have missed it in the avalanche of news. But yes, it was Alberta’s Premier – a long-time advocate of having private interests take the financial risk in the world of business, rather than taxpayers – talking about the potential of the public purse being unzipped to buy oil and gas projects.
“We are prepared to do what is necessary to ensure a future for this province’s economy,” he told a business crowd in Edmonton.
He also told reporters that individual Albertans could, in tandem, buy shares in such a venture. “Public participation is a great idea. And I think Albertans are smart, they’re patriotic, they understand that there’s great value in these resources.”
There are no details yet. Nothing about the plan was in Alberta’s provincial budget on Thursday. Mr. Kenney has told everyone to “stay tuned.”
But the use of the word “patriotic” in talking about investments in anything will be troubling for many – especially those Albertans who want to see greater diversification of the province’s oil-focused economy. But really, for everyone.
This is the same Premier whose government just announced a $1.3-billion loss from the sale of oil-by-rail capacity leases, blaming it on the predecessor NDP government. His United Conservative Party campaigned against the leases in last April’s provincial election, calling the NDP government’s multibillion-dollar plan to get in the business of shipping crude out of the province by rail – to help producers get better prices – a “boondoggle.”
“We knew that this was something the private sector would be willing to do and should be doing at its risk, not at the expense of taxpayers,” Mr. Kenney said earlier this month.
You could be forgiven for wondering where the man who has gone out of his way to praise “principled” conservatism – where one will stick by conservative tenets despite the political cost – has gone. Protecting the oil and gas industry seems to be worth this change of heart for Mr. Kenney. The Alberta Premier is making the argument this dramatic shift is necessary in the context of project cancellations like the Frontier mine, regulatory uncertainty and delays, and “a hostile policy setting from Ottawa."
In some ways, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Alberta has a history in this space. In announcing this shift, Mr. Kenney cited Peter Lougheed’s creation of Crown corporation Alberta Energy Co. to invest in the seminal Syncrude Canada Ltd. oil sands project in 1973, and the former premier’s early support for University of Alberta research on extracting energy from bitumen.
“The Toronto banks and the foreign funds, they weren’t going to go there,” Mr. Kenney said in describing past Alberta government actions. “A lack of access of capital was met by bold leadership and public participation.”
More recently, the provincial government partnered in the Sturgeon Refinery just outside of Edmonton – the first Canadian refinery project built in decades. (The refinery is operating in part, but is more than a year behind schedule in achieving a primary objective of turning oil sands bitumen into diesel.)
And it is an era in where many foreign companies have sold oil sands assets off to domestic energy players, leading to the “Canadianization” of the oil sands – albeit all still in private hands. Infamously, the Trans Mountain pipeline had to be purchased by the federal government in 2018 to keep the now-$12.6-billion expansion project viable.
It’s possible to imagine a time five or 10 years from now where Ottawa still owns the Trans Mountain pipeline – not having been able to find a buyer – and the Alberta government owns an oilfield service company that also helps clean up orphan wells or a portion of an oil sands project.
Martin Pelletier of TriVest Wealth Counsel Ltd. in Calgary calls the potential of oil and gas assets being bought by the Kenney government the “provincialization” of the industry.
But the Alberta government is in the midst of cutting spending and public sector jobs in its push to wrangle the deficit. There is not a lot of new money to go around.
That’s why it’s relevant that one of the items being examined by the province’s “Fair Deal” panel is Alberta taking control of its portion of the Canada Pension Plan. A separate Alberta pension plan could be overseen by the government-owned Alberta Investment Management Company (AIMCo), which already manages more than $115-billion in assets.
At the same time, the United Conservatives are also in public pension consolidation mode. The government passed legislation last fall that mandated the transfer of $18-billion in assets from the Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund (ATRF) to AIMCo by the end of 2021. The government wants to build an even bigger investment entity.
AIMCo operates at arm’s-length from the provincial government. But in recent months, unions and others have expressed concerns the Kenney government could somehow use tens of billions of Alberta pension dollars as a source of fresh capital for the long-suffering oil and gas sector.
Mr. Kenney will soon need to put meat on the bones of his plan to do “what is necessary." Until then, the questions and the speculation about where the money will come from will continue.