Oil Sands Producers Can Live with Alberta’s New Carbon Taxes

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David Yager, Oilprice.com

If business is good at anything, it is pragmatism. Take a hostile takeover for example. After weeks or months of trading insults and accusations in and out of the media, a deal is struck and the warring CEO’s shake hands and call the final deal a stroke of genius. Whatever they may really feel, they put the past behind them and move forward, ostensibly in the best interests of shareholders. After all, it’s just business.

Now that you understand that scenario, one can be forgiven for the peculiar television images of Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley and CNRL boss and founder Murray Edwards praising Alberta’s new carbon tax regime. Promised for months, on Nov. 22 the NDP announced the findings of its special climate change panel and a go-forward strategy for reducing carbon emissions and hopefully keeping the oil industry in business.

Although the policy was announced on Sunday (the NDP had deadlines to meet because of pending federal/provincial climate change meetings – the big international conference in Paris), the big oil sands players were able to find their way to Edmonton to comment on the announcement. This included Suncor CEO Steve Williams, outgoing Shell Canada boss Lorraine Mitchelmore, Cenovus CEO Brian Ferguson, and CNRL Chairman Murray Edwards. Adding his blessing to the announcement in the media was TransCanada CEO Russ Girling.

As Canada’s most established oilsands producer, Suncor CEO Williams made the following comments in the media. He called the announcement “historic,” a “game changer” and expressed “a great deal of pride” in cooperating with environmental groups and historic oilsands opponents in formulating a new environmental regime under which the oilsands would operate.

The attractiveness of the NDP’s carbon tax regime to the oilpatch is, this time, the new levies will primarily be borne by those who consume electricity, gasoline, and natural gas, not produce them. This in itself is a major departure from the way carbon taxes have been packaged and sold to the public in the past. Historically, those opposed to carbon emissions have attacked producers of the energy such as oil companies and coal-fired power generators as the problem, leaving consumers all but blameless.

The Alberta government will introduce a $20 per tonne carbon tax on all sources of carbon energy in 2017 and will raise the levy to $30 per tonne in 2018. According to figures released by the government, this will result in an increase of 5 cents per litre on gasoline in 2017 rising to 7 cents per liter in 2018. When including higher costs for electricity and natural gas, the government estimates the taxes will cost the average household $320 per year in 2017 and $470 per year in 2018. The total tax take is estimated at $3 billion annually. Oil sands producers will continue to pay the large emitter levies already in place.

The reason oil sands producers are endorsing the program in its current form is that if a duly elected government wants to increased carbon taxes, they argued (apparently successfully) the levies should include those who consume the fuel, not just those who produce it. The program calls for a 100,000 megatonne per year cap on oil sands emissions, a figure earlier studies estimated would not be reached until 2030. With current oil sands carbon emissions in the range of 70,000 megatonnes per year, this means oil sands production can continue to grow.

The degree to which oil sands producers are able to reduce carbon emissions on a per barrel or unit basis means they will be permitted to continue to produce and possibly significantly expand oil sands production.

In the past, oilsands producers have argued they were reducing carbon emissions on a per barrel basis. Opponents claimed this was immaterial because total emissions were rising with production. The total emissions from oilsands are now capped. Using current technology this would put a de-facto growth limit on the oilsands, something that immediately caused Greenpeace to claim over 6 billion barrels of bitumen would stay in the ground. However, if producers can greatly reduce the per-unit carbon emissions, this is not necessarily the case.

In light of all the awful things that have been said and written about the oilsands in the past five years in particular – including by representatives of the current Alberta government – one could understand how the senior oilsands producers represented at Premier Notley’s press conference on November 22 could speak favorably of the proposed policy.

Since being elected in May, Premier Notley and her cabinet ministers have created a direct linkage between Alberta’s historic policies on carbon emissions and opposition to crude oil export pipelines in Canada and the United States. The thesis is if Alberta were tougher on carbon emissions then opposition to export pipelines would be diminished.

But it is not intuitive that making Albertans pay significantly more for gasoline, electricity and heating (natural gas) will cause oilsands and carbon energy opponents to tolerate continued and possibly increased bitumen production.

However, after years of trying to achieve improved market access for Alberta crude with no success, it would appear the captains of industry are willing to give the new strategy a try. With the NDP holding a majority government until at least 2019 and with their stated determination to reduce carbon emissions, industry support is clearly more biased towards pragmatism than policy.

Although it is not fashionable to publicly question attempts to reduce carbon emissions and their impact upon climate change, how taxing 4 million Albertans much more will change the behavior of 6 billion energy consumers around the world has not yet been fully explained.

The policy announcement also includes a faster phase-out for coal-fired electricity generation. This is a known and significant carbon emitter and across North America attempts are being made to use coal less and alternative sources more. Once the NDP made public its plans to accelerate the phase-out of coal, the producers of this power began talking publicly about compensation. How this issue will be dealt with in a fair and transparent manner that does not impair Alberta’s reputation as a good place to invest has not been disclosed.

The promised major reduction in methane emissions is an element of the policy with an unknown cost. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers told the Financial Post on Nov. 23, “We know for certain to meet the 45% reduction in methane there will be a real costs in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years”.

As for Joe Albertan, at some point the collective burden of a shrinking economy caused by the oil price collapse and yet another tax increase will be felt in the greater economy. A multitude of consumer and corporate taxes – including fuel – have already been introduced. Minimum wage increases are underway, which small business claims will increase costs and impair profits. Whether royalties will or will not rise is unknown until this policy review is completed.

The anticipated $3 billion in carbon tax revenue will join several billion in other income and consumption tax increases. It is not unreasonable to estimate some 10% of the province’s revenue will soon be from levies that did not exist prior to the May election. In the October budget the NDP indicated it would not be reducing government spending because to do so in the current economic climate would damage Alberta’s economy.

The downturn is already having a negative effect on residential and commercial real estate values across the province. The Financial Post reported Nov. 23 house prices in Fort McMurray were down an average of 20% in the past 12 months. The average sale price of homes across Alberta was 3.9% lower in October 2015 than the same month last year. According to Statistic Canada, in 2006 there were 1.256 million “occupied private dwellings” in Alberta (the latest figures available).

It is much higher now. This includes houses, apartments, condominiums, mobile homes and whatever else Albertans choose to live in. At an average value of $300,000, the total worth would be $377 billion, which is why so many economists note that for most folks, their most valuable asset is the roof over their heads. A 5% reduction in the value of all the residences in Alberta would cost the owners $18.8 billion using this methodology.

The combination of the oil price collapse, the rise in the unemployment rate and the myriad of new taxes and levies introduced by the NDP (which will impact mortgage qualification and affordability) simply must result in further erosion of the net worth and financial flexibility of Albertans.

Everyone who works in the oil industry and listens to the news is aware of the growing public pressure to “do something” about hydrocarbon fuel emissions and their increasingly-accepted impact upon the world’s climate. The pending end of the world as we know it is a powerful driver of human emotion. At some point this will manifest itself in public policy.

So, for those in the trenches of the oil and gas industry two things are assured: carbon taxes and changes in how the oil industry does business are inevitable, and taxing oil and natural gas consumers is preferable to only taxing hydrocarbon fuel producers.

That said, the NDP’s new climate change policy is more bad news for Alberta’s black and blue oilpatch. Many have taken pay cuts to keep their jobs and now there is more pressure on after-tax income. You may get to keep working but your disposable income and possibly your net worth will continue to decline.

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