Successive Alberta governments over the last 44 years have mismanaged their way out of C$575 billion in revenue that should have been available to help cushion the province from a brutal oil price crash and chart a course to a more diverse, less fossil-dependent economy, according to a University of Calgary economics professor.
“Back in 1976, Alberta’s government established a special fund to save some of its oil and gas revenue for leaner times when prices dropped or resources ran dry,” Bloomberg News recalls, in a post republished by fossil industry newsletter JWN Energy. “For decades, royalties poured into Alberta’s coffers, with the gusher accelerating in the boom of the early 2000s as the province developed its vast oil sands reserves, the world’s third-largest oil resource.”
But unfortunately, “successive governments failed to stick to the savings plan. Today, as weak oil prices upend economies around the world, Alberta is confronting its own painful regrets. Had it set aside more during oil’s boom, Alberta could have had a C$575 billion ($433 billion) wealth fund to cushion the blows of COVID-19,” vastly more than the C$16.3 it currently has on hand.
“Many people in Alberta might not even realize that the Heritage Fund still exists,” economist Trevor Tombe told the news agency. “The fact that there is such a large missed opportunity, that had we been saving royalties we could have had a fund in the hundreds of billions, is not widely appreciated.”
Tombe said he based his calculation on the fund’s actual investment returns, “but assumes that the province had followed practices similar to those that helped Norway amass its US$1.12 trillion Government Pension Fund Global. Those guidelines include contributing all of its resource revenue to the fund and withdrawing only 4% a year,” Bloomberg explains. “Norway plans to exceed that cap this year, withdrawing about 4.2% of the fund, or roughly US$37 billion, to shore up its budget.”
The Norwegian fund began moving to dump its own fossil fuel investments in November 2017.
By contrast, Bloomberg says, “Alberta has no similar piggy bank to crack,” leaving Premier Jason Kenney to predict a C$20-billion deficit this year—about the same size as Ontario’s, with three times the population.
Citing Colleen Collins, a Canada West Foundation vice president who worked in the office of then-premier Peter Lougheed when he set up the Heritage Fund in the 1970s, Bloomberg says the transfers initially amounted to 30% of the province’s non-renewable resource revenue. But that all ended in 1987, when low oil prices led to rising government deficits. “The fund has limped along since, contributing investment income to the province’s general revenue pool while receiving occasional, ad hoc infusions during better times.”
“There was this sense of ‘Well, it’s a rainy day fund, and man, is it rainy,’” Collins told the news agency. Even though the Heritage Fund was originally supposed to hold wealth for future generations, “nobody wants to see services cut. Nobody wants to see public servants’ salaries cut. How do you say no to people when you have all that money in the bank?”
There were also concerns the federal government might move to reduce transfers to Alberta if the Heritage Fund got too big—a problem that Norway, as a unitary state, hasn’t faced.
“Still, Alberta’s politicians may have been lulled into a false sense of financial security by a long stretch of good times and bullish projections that the U.S. and China would be ready buyers for the province’s crude for decades to come,” Bloomberg writes. Now, times are very tough, and Tombe is hoping some lessons have been learned.
“The scale of the economic disruptions and the fiscal disruptions are so big that I think it is genuinely leading people to think we need to do something differently,” he said. “And if an event like this does not cause us to change how we’re doing things, I don’t know what will.”