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David Yager

David Yager

Based in Calgary, David Yager is a former oilfield services executive and the principal of Yager Management Ltd., an oilfield services management consultancy. He has…

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Alberta’s Oil Companies Warn Government On Taxes

Alberta’s Oil Companies Warn Government On Taxes

Big oil is taking no chances with the outcome of Alberta’s royalty review currently underway. In 2007, the industry was surprised when royalties were jacked up despite dozens of corporate presentations to the royalty review panel warning of the fragility of investment economics and the damage increased royalties would cause. Therefore producers and others with significant vested interest have already started the lobbying process.

Such is the case with Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) which made a slide presentation to the new NDP Alberta government on August 20. The industry has obviously learned never to assume politicians actually understand what makes the economy and oil industry work.

The presentation’s key messages were: CNRL is a responsible operator in every way; jobs are created by investment, supported by a positive return on capital; Alberta needs a supportive environment which creates jobs; Alberta is a high cost place to do business, and historically, returns on investment have been poor. That’s when prices were high. It is worse now.

CNRL has been very successful because it is all business. Any oilfield service contractor working for CNRL knows how much price matters to that operator. The company’s Mission Statement reads, “To develop people to work together to create value for the Company’s shareholders by doing it right with fun and integrity.” There is little confusion about why CNRL is in business and what it is trying to accomplish. The presentation ended with the message, “Share the contents of this presentation with your friends and family.” So here we go. Related: Eni Announces Supergiant Gas Discovery Off Egyptian Coast

You hope when CNRL talks somebody listens. The company is a made-in-Alberta success story. The public corporate entity started life in Vancouver in 1973 as AEX Minerals Corporation, a junior miner which explored for zinc and lead in the Yukon. In 1975 it was renamed Canadian Natural Resources Limited and registered in Alberta 1982. The company has been on a breathtaking growth tear ever since.

On June 30, 2015, CNRL was Canada’s largest oil and gas producing company by any measure. Production on a barrel of oil equivalent (boe) basis was 806,000 boe/day. Put into perspective, Imperial Oil Limited, Cenovus Energy Inc. and Encana Corporation had combined production of only 1,008,000 boe/day. Revenue for the quarter ended June 30 was $3.8 billion, all from the sale of oil, gas and liquids. All the other companies with similar or greater revenues own refineries or downstream operations. CNRL is the top well licensee so far in 2015 and, to the end of June, was the seventh busiest driller.

CNRL has 7,000 employees in Alberta living in 90 communities. Last year, the company created 74,000 person-years of direct and indirect employment in this province. This does not include operations in B.C., Saskatchewan, North Sea, offshore Africa and South Africa. It spends heavily on R&D, investing $450 million in 2014 alone, making it one of Canada’s largest spenders in developing new technologies and processes. It works with 30,000 separate landowners and 55 Aboriginal communities. CNRL paid $227 million in property taxes in Alberta last year and another $50 million to surface and mineral title holders. More than $10 million was spent on community donations and sponsorships in 2014.

With the motherhood statements made, CNRL gets down to business. The company declares there is a direct linkage between oil and gas investment, government revenues and jobs. It all ties back to Return on Capital Employed, or ROCE. The higher the ROCE, the more money the company can and will invest. Related: Global Demand Picture For Natural Gas Looks Increasingly Sour

The reward for governments that create an attractive economic environment is jobs and revenue. The numbers are clear. In 2014 there were 74,000 person-years of employment in Alberta, a figure that will fall to 57,000 this year. In the future, it can grow or shrink. Outside of commodity prices, how the Alberta government manages and regulates the upstream oil and gas industry will be a major factor.

CNRL notes Alberta’s current royalty system is price sensitive and fair. If prices go up, the government gets more and the opposite is true when prices fall. CNRL warns, “Adjusting this balance (between the industry and government take) is very difficult and more often than not has unintended consequences.” The drivers of ROCE are assets (geology), commodity prices, government fiscal terms, the regulatory burden, capital and operating costs. Commodity prices are beyond anyone’s control. But the fiscal and regulatory terms are entirely under the control of the Alberta government.

CNRL goes to great lengths to illustrate the oil and gas business as nowhere near as profitable as many believe. According the company, in 2012 and 2013 “Canada / Alberta oil & natural gas” ranked behind arts and entertainment and recreation, agencies / brokers, alcohol and tobacco, insurance companies, construction, agriculture, forestry, banking, mining and pharmaceuticals in terms of ROCE. In those years, the average price of WTI was US$94.19 and US$98.00 respectively.

CNRL pegged its ROCE in 2014 at 10 percent and this year at -1.9 percent. Notes to the slide read, “At high crude prices, just made cost of capital. At low oil prices, destroyed capital.” Regardless, CNRL invested heavily in 2013 and 2014. But the company asks itself the question, “If the industry is doing so poorly, why does there seem to be so many high paying jobs across Alberta?”

The answer is very interesting, and not what you might expect from a giant oil company. CNRL says the oil business is like a horse race, where only the top three ponies make money with a win, place and show. All the others lose. But the entity that always make money is the race track, which is the Alberta government. And if one race track isn’t paying out enough money to winners, the bettors and horses go elsewhere. Such is the case with oil and gas investment in Alberta.

To emphasize the point, the oil business has more winners than losers (thus supporting the low ROCE case for oil versus other industries). CNRL lists the top 30 producers from 15 years ago. Only 43 percent of the companies still exist. The rest have sold their shares or assets to others because they could not achieve an attractive ROCE (companies with a high ROCE and share prices are rarely taken over because there is no upside for the new owner).

On the issue of high paying jobs, CNRL’s slide notes read, “…having a few winners is what keeps investors investing in Alberta, and investment creates and maintains jobs. If the conditions are right both Alberta and Canadian Natural can win. This competition has been good for workers in Alberta. In the oil and gas business, companies compete to get the best people from geologists to finance folks to the operators in the field. In recent years there has been a shortage of skilled people and as a result compensation for people throughout the industry has gone up dramatically. The individual prosperity created by this competition for talent is a benefit for all Albertans.” Related: Obama’s Balancing Act: Climate Change And Arctic Drilling

Alberta has several advantages, including a large resource base with low decline rates, proven ingenuity and technology and a skilled workforce. But CNRL says the world has changed. Technology has allowed the U.S. to re-emerge as a major oil producer. There is more oil available than the world needs and Alberta is an expensive place to do business. Two more slides show how oil from the Middle East and Russia is substantially cheaper than oilsands and shale oil from Alberta and the marginal cost of shale oil from the U.S. keeps coming down as technology improves. CNRL also has a chart showing Alberta’s current royalty rates are already higher than in B.C. or Saskatchewan.


CNRL wraps up by warning about the negative impacts on ROCE and Alberta’s prospects, should the province proceed with raising corporate taxes, carbon taxes and royalties. The first two have already been announced. The company cites examples like the United Kingdom’s sector of the North Sea which jacked up royalties in 2011, saw investment disappear and production decline, then lowered them again to get back in the game.

In closing, CNRL wrote, “Alberta is facing significant challenges due to capital and operating cost increases that have occurred in the past 10 years, including escalating regulatory and policy requirements. Therefore, CNRL is attacking costs in six key areas: reductions in costs related to contractors; improved productivity; material cost reductions; right scoping; technology and innovation adaptation; and improved regulatory process and fiscal policy outcomes.”

One can only hope the government policy makers across the table were listening and understand the message.

By David Yager for Oilprice.com

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  • Keenan Robert on September 07 2015 said:
    The environmental cost of extracting oil from oil sands is orders of magnitude higher than any other oil extraction method. And that is before even considering the proportionately worse effects on global warming per barrel of oil from oil sands compared to other oil sources. If any one has any questions about this unbelievable and criminal destructiveness of oil sands extraction, one only need look at the photos of what these criminal oil sands companies are doing to massive areas of formerly pristine ecosystems of Alberta.

    Currently, an area comparable to the size of Northern California, everything from Monterey County to the Oregon border, and from the Redwood forests of the pacific coastal ranges to the Sierra Nevada mountains on the Nevada border, is slated to be bulldozed and destroyed in order to get to the oil sands underneath. Imagine taking a bulldozer to the entire area of Northern California in such a way? The whole world would be outrages at the wholesale slaughter and genocide of such an irreplaceable valuable environmental legacy. Just because Alberta is not so well traveled and known about, does not mean that the environmental crime being committed up there is not just as evil.

    At some point, the oil sands will be used up. But the death and destruction of huge areas of Alberta will be left behind, permanently damaged and severely devalued in terms of what other (and less destructive) uses the incredible pristine Alberta environmental resources could have been used for, as well as the value of the environmental services that benefits future generations of Canadians and the world. And the extractive industries will move on, looking for new frontiers to destroy. Most likely, however, if humans stay addicted to fossil fuels long enough for the entire oil sands resources of Alberta to be extracted and depleted, there will be no economy left of any significance anyway, with perhaps most of the world's cities being drowned by rising oceans, and massive crop failures due to severe weather and temperatures collapsing human civilization.

    So, taking into consideration of mind boggling costs that this industry is putting onto Alberta, and all of humanity, not only should the level of royalties of Alberta demands from this hyper-destructive and criminal industry be higher than any other type of oil extraction royalties of other methods, even if it makes some oil sands projects unprofitable, it would be in humanity's and future generations of Albertans' interests if all means are pursued that would have the effect of slowing down the oil sands environmental holocaust going on right now.
  • The Shadow Broker on September 07 2015 said:
    Oil companies can make all the slide show presentations they want but when you are presenting to someone who has already made up their mind you will have little effect. Alberta has a socialist government and all socialists know how to do is spend other peoples money.

    CNRL is right that people will jump ship if there is more money elsewhere.
  • Keenan Roberts on September 07 2015 said:
    @The Shadow Broker: You are a funny guy.

    "Alberta has a socialist government and all socialists know how to do is spend other peoples money."

    And all capitalists know how to so is use other peoples' resources and socialize the costs of their industrial activity, while privatizing the profits. Capitalists are always happy to dump their deadly chemical waste into the air and water - OTHER PEOPLES' AIR AND WATER - whenever they can get away with it.

    Capitalists on Wall Street are always happy to take risks with peoples' retirement funds - OTHER PEOPLES' MONEY - and publicly insured savings accounts and make irresponsible risky speculative bets, even crashing the entire economy when allowed to like in 2008 - OTHER PEOPLES' ECONOMY - whenever they can get away with it.

    The global climate and environmental sustainability belong to humanity and future generations as a whole, it does not belong to CNRL or whatever criminal oil sands company wants to appropriate it for their own private profits, while socializing the costs of their destruction.

    "CNRL is right that people will jump ship if there is more money elsewhere."

    As far as future generations of Canadians, and humanity as a whole, that would be a preferable outcome. Let's all hope that the Alberta government jacks up the royalty taxes high enough that it does significantly slow down investment in the criminal oil sands industry.
  • The Shadow Broker on September 07 2015 said:
    @Keenan Roberts All the environmentalist whining and protesting won't make a lick of difference.

    We are in the last days of dirty energy and companies are trying to get as much as possible. There is nothing you can do to stop it, the cycle must complete it self.

    Innovation is the only thing that will save this planet.

    We are on the cusp of free, or at least very cheap, clean energy for all.

    What we can do is support and focus our energy on creating new systems so when the old ones fail there will be something to take it's place.
  • Keenan Roberts on September 07 2015 said:
    "We are on the cusp of free, or at least very cheap, clean energy for all."

    Are you one of those pie in the sky free energy believers? "Free energy" has been "on the cusp" for a few decades now, with still no evidence to support any of the fantasies that people keep pushing, and still no closer to any real "free energy devices" than we were when people first started promising these non-existent magical secret devices more than 2 decades ago. Good luck with that prediction. If you are hinging the fate of the earth and humanity on such fantasies, while saying that "There is nothing you can do to stop dirty energy, the cycle must complete it self", then you are basically promoting the extinction of the human species.

    Are you really willing to risk the survivability of our species on the hope that some fantasy "free energy" miracle will come true before we finish mining all of the fossil fuels out of the ground and cause a collapse of most ecosystems from ratcheting up the CO2 levels by several orders of magnitude while waiting for the mythical "free energy device" to appear?

    Sorry, but I would rather engage with people who are in touch with reality.
  • Bo on September 08 2015 said:
    What cheap energy are you talking about? Solar, cheap for who? The electric companies pay pennies for your excess, then they charge you $dollars to get it back. You can now pay for solar if you agree to pay the same as electric for 20 years. Wind, most places will not allow the wind turbines in your area, because they look ugly. As far as this company who only drills for the oil, but pays to have it shipped down stream, they are just stealing your oil. Unless we quit listening to the same old spin about investment this inveatment that, it will be the status quo, we steal you get pennies.
  • Keenan Roberts on September 08 2015 said:
    Good luck with your free energy fantasy. Predictions of being "on the cusp" of free energy have been peddled for decades, and yet we seem no closer today to getting our hands on an actual free energy device than we were decades ago when people first started promising that these magical non-existent free energy devices are "right around the corner, probably within months". I seriously doubt that it is wise to pin humanity's hopes on such a hoax and assume that we can therefore escape making the tough choices that need to be made to avoid the collapse of civilization by waiting too long to wean ourselves off of environmentally destructive fossil fuels.
  • Jim on November 01 2017 said:
    Big companies like this are absolutely out of control. The resources they thieve, cajole, and exploit with their backroom strongarm tactics allow them to book record profits every year, while doing business in an unsafe and unethical way: case in point CNRLs recent court case to dismiss a public inquiry into the deaths of Chinese TFWs at their Horizon site which was caused by unqualified engineering of storage tanks which failed. Yet when the govt. asks for a couple % more, they threaten the GOVERNMENT. These companies need to be slapped into place. Those resources belong to all Canadians and it's high time we realize that

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