The federal government paid Calgary-based Suncor Energy as much as $600-million to compensate for Middle East oil and gas assets and income lost since the Arab Spring in 2011.
On Wednesday Suncor disclosed in its quarterly financial results that it had received $300-million in “risk mitigation” payments relating to its Libyan operations. This followed a separate $300-million payment linked to its Syrian enterprise in 2012. Suncor declined to answer questions about the payments.
Suncor reported a profit of $3.3-billion on revenue of $38.98-billion for the 12 months ended Dec. 31, 2018. With an enterprise value of $76-billion at the end of last year and daily production capacity of about 830,000 barrels, Suncor by any measure ranks among Canada’s largest energy companies.
Export Development Canada (EDC), the national export credit agency, has long offered political risk insurance. That insurance protects EDC’s customers against the dangers of doing business in high-risk emerging markets, such as expropriation, political violence and the inability to transfer or convert local currency. The insurance cushioned the blow for Suncor, which wrote off assets worth billions of dollars from its former Middle East operations.
Political risk insurance is a niche product, and Suncor’s claims are massive by both Canadian and international standards. The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp., one of the world’s largest political risk insurers, has paid out 300 settlements since it was established by president Richard Nixon in 1971; the combined value of those claims was only US$977.4-million.
Although a handful of commercial insurers have offered the product, the Crown corporation is known for taking risks the private sector would never entertain. In the years leading up to 2011, EDC charged a premium of around 1 per cent or slightly less for this insurance. EDC has typically earned around $10-million to $20-million in premiums annually from selling political risk insurance; at that rate, it would take decades to cover Suncor’s claims.
EDC underwrote Suncor’s insurance policy in 2006 at a time when Petro-Canada (which merged with Suncor in 2009) produced crude oil in Libya and was pursuing a new natural gas development in Syria, having just sold a portfolio of mature assets there. Petro-Canada began developing the Ebla natural gas project in Syria in the late 2000s, where it saw “significant upside potential.” Meanwhile, it also established itself as one of Libya’s larger oil producers through Harouge Oil Operations, a joint venture with that country’s national oil company.
The company pumped hundreds of millions of dollars in capital spending into the two countries. But it knew its overseas assets were threatened by unrest, economic and legal sanctions and war, and purchased political risk insurance from EDC and commercial insurers to mitigate those perils.
EDC, meanwhile, wanted to encourage more Canadian foreign direct investment. One way to accomplish that was by offering increased volumes of political risk insurance to Canadian companies interested in doing business in volatile emerging markets. In 2006 EDC broadened its political risk insurance program to cover a wider variety of investments. That year it underwrote $4.8-billion in political risk insurance, substantially beating its own target.
Canadians had little way of knowing about Suncor’s insurance policy. Although EDC disclosed most of its financing transactions since 2001, it reveals political risk insurance policies only when the beneficiaries were lenders such as banks. In 2006 it disclosed political insurance policies in Mauritania, Jamaica and Mexico, but none in the Middle East. EDC declined to answer most of The Globe’s questions about the Suncor policy. “We are obligated to respect the confidentiality of our policy holders and their policies with us,” it said in a statement.
EDC continued expanding its insurance business in the Middle East and Africa throughout the late 2000s, and by the dawn of the Arab Spring, 37 per cent of its political risk insurance portfolio resided in that region – by far its largest regional exposure.
The timing proved unfortunate.
Things soured quickly in February, 2011, when what began as anti-government rallies in Benghazi grew into an armed uprising against the government of Moammar Gadhafi. Meanwhile, pro-democracy protests in March, 2011, in southern Syria also mushroomed into widespread unrest throughout the country, prompting a crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad and, ultimately, civil war.
Responding to international sanctions, Suncor suspended operations in both countries. In Syria the suspension proved indefinite, and the company filed a claim to EDC in 2011. The following year, Suncor reported receiving $300-million in “risk mitigation” payments relating to its Syrian operations, without identifying the source. Meanwhile, EDC disclosed a $300-million claim without identifying the customer. “EDC had the largest political risk insurance claim charge in its history as a result of the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East,” Pierre Gignac, EDC’s then-chief risk officer, mentioned in a 2013 commentary.
Another was coming.
Suncor’s withdrawal from Libya unfolded in a less straightforward manner. After Mr. Gadhafi was removed from power and murdered in 2011, Suncor was optimistic it could continue doing business under the new government. It resumed production later that year. But beginning in July, 2013, Suncor found its Libyan oil shut in again, a situation that worsened after export terminals it relied on were closed. The result was the same: As unrest escalated, Suncor concluded it could no longer operate in Libya, either.
Suncor received its second $300-million payment earlier this year. The company noted it might have to repay some of that sum “dependent on the future performance and cash flows from Suncor’s Libyan assets.” But as of press time, Suncor said continuing political risk continues to impede its production in Libya. As the latest payment has yet to appear in EDC’s financial statements, it’s not clear the Crown corporation paid the full balance.
In the years following Suncor’s monster Syrian claim, EDC disclosed additional political risk insurance exposures across the Middle East, including $300-million of liability in each of Tunisia, Qatar, Algeria and Yemen. EDC continues to offer this type of insurance, but in 2017 its total exposure fell below $1-billion for the first time in years, and its Middle Eastern liability had fallen to 10 per cent of its total portfolio.
EDC says it is self-funding. However, as a Crown corporation, its benefits from the federal government’s triple-A credit rating.
EDC declined to discuss whether it had changed its underwriting or risk management practices as a result of Suncor's claims.
Jim Carr, the Minister of International Trade Diversification, bears primary responsibility for supervising the Crown corporation. In a statement, his office said: “In these cases, the political risk insurance was purchased under the previous government and these payments were simply following the contracts signed under those agreements.
“We will continue to work with the agency and their new CEO to ensure that they uphold the values of openness and transparency that Canadians expect.” (Former long-time Bombardier executive Mairead Lavery was appointed EDC’s new president and CEO on Feb. 5, replacing Benoit Daignault, who held the post five years beginning in 2014. She is the first female to hold the position.)
In addition to Suncor, other Canadian companies have historically also experienced significant losses while operating abroad – often because of expropriation.
Robert Wisner, a lawyer with McMillan LLP in Toronto who specializes in international arbitrations, said disputes between companies and governments involving political risks are increasingly resolved under international investment treaties. “In that field there have been billion-dollar awards, including for Canadian companies,” he said. Prominent Canadian examples include Canadian mining companies operating in Venezuela such as Crystallex International Corp., Rusoro Mining Corp. and Gold Reserve Inc. that lost properties through expropriation in Venezuela.
“Obviously the billion-dollar cases are at the very high end," he added, “but there have been other cases where awards have been paid out for hundreds of millions of dollars.”