Subsidies in the oil patch

Eric Reguly on the Accelerated Capital Cost Allowance and Big Oil, from today’s Globe:

Oil sands may be federal Tories’ Achilles heel

… For the opposition parties, the beauty of the oil sands is that you can point to them. The visuals are appropriately disturbing. You can see the gaping holes in the earth, you can measure the water flows, or lack thereof, as the projects drain the Athabasca River. You can measure the soaring carbon dioxide output and the consumption of natural gas, the clean fossil fuel that is being used to produce a dirty fossil fuel. You can ask the question: All this to keep American SUVs on the road?The NDP, emboldened by the oil sands “traffic jam” warnings of former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, would love to see development slowed, even stopped, until a green-tinged energy program is put in place. They want to end the tax breaks to oil sands projects. Stéphane Dion, the new Liberal Leader, has said the tax breaks should go only to projects that significantly reduce their carbon dioxide output and water consumption. The Pembina Institute estimates the industry reaps $1.4-billion or more in federal tax goodies every year. You might think oil prices above $60 (U.S.) a barrel would be enough incentive to dig the goo out of the ground, but the oil industry thinks otherwise.

Stephen Harper’s Tories apparently have no plan to rein in their beloved oil sands players (to their credit, they have yet to satisfy Imperial Oil’s yearnings for freebies to build the Mackenzie gas pipeline). The oil industry itself knows the Tories are vulnerable on the oil sands front. Its lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), is already on the offensive. But even it underestimates the resolve of the NDP and the Liberals to force the oil sands to clean up its act. The nine provinces that didn’t have the dumb luck to sit atop a sea of tar know what’s good for Alberta is not necessarily good for the rest of Canada.

… The main development incentive is the ACCA — the accelerated capital cost allowance — which, since 1996, has applied to both surface and underground mining in the oil sands. It allows the individual oil sands projects, though not the parent company itself, to write off all of their capital costs before they start to pay income tax. If the project’s revenue is $1-billion (Canadian) and the capital expenditures are the same amount, the ACCA deduction can be $1-billion.

CAPP argues that the ACCA is a tax deferral, not a subsidy. That may be true, but it is nonetheless generous. Conventional oil and gas projects qualify for a 25-per-cent ACCA. It also argues the accelerated allowance is available to renewable-energy investments, so why not the oil sands? The answer is that it’s in Canada’s best environmental interests to speed up the development of green energy. Speeding up development of the oil sands is not.

There is a solution to this potential standoff between the oil industry and the federal and Alberta governments, on one side, and the opposition’s green warriors on the other, and that’s an ambitious energy policy that rewards clean, or cleaner, projects, and punishes dirty ones.

The ACCA should die. The oil sands need no artificial incentives to expand. The oil sands are vast and unique. Oil prices are high and there’s a guaranteed market in the form of the United States. If the ACCA did not exist, the projects would still have been built. Any savings from eliminating the tax deduction could help fund research to find ways to reduce the oil sands’ voracious gas and water needs and carbon dioxide output.

Alberta could do its part by raising the province’s absurdly low royalty rates (1 per cent on new projects) and devoting some of the extra income to renewable energy R&D funds, oil sands technology development, home insulation programs and the like.


  • My thoughts on this are why not shift the CCA to cleaner energy useage, and conservation of the water supply, like Dion has suggested. I’m not up to date on where the current technology for carbon capture is, if it is cost effective enough. But maybe limiting the ACCA to cleaner technology in the oil sands might be the way to go. Also, due to the labour shortage in Alberta, it might make sense for them to slow production in the oil sands. They can’t keep up with their infrastructure as it is.

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