Time for a closer look at a refinery everyone loves to hate

Jeffrey Jones

On the surface, the Sturgeon refinery project has just about everything Albertans would hope for as their economy sputters.

It will create jobs by processing scads of gooey crude from the oil sands into diesel fuel. It has long-term bitumen supply agreements with the province and one of Canada's largest oil companies.
Its carbon emissions will be piped away for use in old oil reservoirs to help produce leftover crude rather than vented into the atmosphere. That fits well with the province's new climate framework.

Yet it's the $8.5-billion project everyone loves to hate.

That is because much has always been going on under the surface - political dealing, a surprise cost overrun and lingering questions about whether government should be involved in an industrial project.

Now, Greg Clark, leader of the Alberta Party and its sole sitting member, is urging the province's Auditor-General to pore over the books and the project's prospects to study just how exposed taxpayers are.

His increasing concern stems from two recent developments - a credit-rating agency's warning that the debt of the operator, North West Redwater Partnership, could be downgraded, and the NDP government's move to increase the borrowing limit of the public agency in charge to $400-million from $300-million.

Whether that might have any impact on future exposure for taxpayers is unknown. Still, after a $2.8-billion cost overrun in 2013, Albertans are much more exposed than they were at first.

An official examination would help Albertans understand how much they will be on the hook for if the budget gets blown again, and help inform decisions on expansions of this project or plans for any future ones, Mr. Clark says.

"If the risks are deemed to be too high, can the Alberta government sell its stake?" he says. "Part of the challenge is that we're too far down the path to stop the project. But we may not be too far down the path to say, if there's another cash call for another few hundred million, do we continue the project? Is it simply throwing good money after bad?" Premier Rachel Notley's government has been big on the idea of creating jobs by processing Alberta's bitumen into petroleum products instead of just shipping it to export markets along with the added employment. In fact, the government's royalty review report, due within weeks, is expected to address the issue.

However, the NDP has been anything but a cheerleader for the Sturgeon refinery, saying it inherited the project from the Progressive Conservative government and that any subsequent involvement will depend on how the first 80,000-barrel-a-day phase fares.

The plant is due for completion next year. It is a 50-50 partnership of North West Upgrading and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., and was selected by the PCs under Premier Ed Stelmach to process bitumen that the province takes in lieu of cash royalties. The policy was meant to address a growing demand for job creation, and criticism that Alberta was missing out on value-added revenues. Sound familiar?

Yes, the idea of value-added bitumen jobs was not an invention of the NDP.

One question keeps coming up, though: If adding new refining capacity is a potential cash cow, why isn't Suncor or Exxon Mobil doing it? According to North West chief executive Ian MacGregor, it is because they already have refineries around the continent that can do the job, and do not want the competition.

During a briefing with reporters last fall, he said he was confident that overruns are a thing of the past because the engineering work is done and contracts for $6-billion of the work are inked.

The government, through its Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission, is supplying 75 per cent of the feedstock. Its involvement, which also includes loans and service costs, allows the operating company to access bond markets at favourable rates, Mr. MacGregor said.

However, in December, Moody's Investors Service placed $6.3-billion of the partnership's debt up for review for a possible downgrade. This was after the rating agency's warning it may downgrade CNRL along with several other energy companies due to oil's lengthy swoon.

This means borrowing could get more expensive, and that Mr. Clark's call for an assessment about what it means for taxpayers is timely.

Alberta's Sturgeon refinery is due for completion in 2017.