If you were looking for evidence that Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is a pragmatist, we saw it yesterday. Backed by the members of the Royalty Review Panel, Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd and the 16 New Democratic Party MLAs from the Calgary region, Ms. Notley announced the Alberta government would not be increasing natural resource royalty rates.
The Royalty Review wraps up the second major review panel launched by the NDP after their win in the 2015 provincial election. The report from Alberta’s Climate Change panel represents a more meaningful shift by the government by phasing out dirty coal fired power plants and introducing a carbon tax. As the Climate Change report represents sweeping change, the royalty review panel embraces the status quo.
“It is not the time to reach out and make a big money grab. That just is not going to help Albertans over-all right now, and so I feel quite confident that this is the right direction to take,” Ms. Notley told the news conference in Calgary yesterday.
The decision to keep royalty rates the same is a 180 degree turn from the feisty NDP opposition we knew ten months ago, which claimed Albertans were not getting their fair share from royalties under the old Progressive Conservative regime.
It was also a sharp contrast from the words we heard from the chairman of the province’s previous royalty review. In 2007, Bill Hunter wrote that “Albertans do not receive their fair share from energy development. Albertans own the resource. The onus is on their government to re-balance the royalty and tax system so that a fair share is collected.”
If you were paying attention to the moderate language Ms. Notley and NDP cabinet ministers have used when discussing royalty rates since forming government and launching this review panel in mid-2015, you might be less surprised.
With the government’s messaging in mind, it is not shocking that the NDP did not choose to ignore the panels recommendations and impose sweeping changes that many Albertans, including myself, felt were needed. It is my belief that our resource royalties should have been raised to ensure that Albertans are actually getting their fair share when oil prices are high. This report does not do that.
While the decision to accept the status quo on royalty rates will certainly be a divisive issue within the NDP caucus and party, it demonstrates that Ms. Notley is not a partisan ideologue.
The NDP would have faced a severe political backlash from its right-wing opponents, the energy industry, and thousands of Albertans nervous about the state of the economy if they had jacked up royalty rates yesterday. In the short-term, with the current economic situation in mind, it is a smart political decision to keep royalty rates the same, but in the long-term it represents a missed opportunity for Albertans.
Closing the door to royalty increases will also not help solve the revenue shortfall caused by the drop in the international price of oil. After enjoying decades of high oil and natural gas prices, the old conservative government became over dependent on resource royalties to fund the province’s operations budget. With international oil price dropping, the new government now faces a significant shortfall in revenue.
By accepting current royalty rates, the government has also rebuked months of hyper-partisan rhetoric and nasty attacks from Wildrose leader Brian Jean, who claimed the review was risky, ideological and would “not be independent or fair.” It is troubling that Mr. Jean and his party are opposed to even the concept of reviewing Alberta’s resource royalty rates, something that should be done by the Alberta government on a regular basis to assess whether our rates are competitive.
Creating mechanisms for increased transparency around royalties is one positive outcome of this review. The report recommends the annual publication of a capital cost index for oil and gas wells and the costs and royalties paid for each oil sands project. The Auditor General has reported numerous times that the old Conservative government was not properly tracking whether Albertans were receiving the royalty rates they were owed.
Significant new investment in the Heritage Fund when oil prices do rise again will pay off for Albertans in the long-term. In their 2015 election platform, the NDP campaigned on the promise that “100% of incremental royalty revenue, above the sums earned by Alberta under the current regime, will be invested into Alberta’s Heritage Fund.”
Many Albertans will disagree with the report’s claim that Albertans are currently receiving our fair share from resource royalties. Others will claim it will limit the government’s options for dealing with the revenue shortfall. But, for better or worse, it does show the evolution of Ms. Notley and her party from leftish opposition into a moderate government. For better or worse, yesterday we saw Rachel Notley boost her credentials as a pragmatic Premier of Alberta.