CANADA: Canada Conservative Gets Aggressive With Big Oil

Danny Williams may be a multimillionaire and a member of the Conservative Party of Canada, but these days he is being compared to a self-proclaimed revolutionary, the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez.

Not that Mr. Williams, the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, minds.

Since walking out on talks with a group led by Exxon Mobil and the Canadian subsidiary of Chevron over the development of the Hebron oil field this spring, Mr. Williams has never been more popular, at least at home. And he has since bolstered that gain by threatening to propose a new law that would revoke the lease on the property that has been held by the oil consortium for more than two decades.

By taking on Big Oil, which has developed other offshore fields in his province, Mr. Williams is taking quite a gamble. Newfoundland has been Canada's poorest province for more than 50 years, and can hardly afford to lose out on any chance of a windfall from Hebron.

But the fight also illustrates that the era of high prices and concern over energy supplies for the United States has emboldened some caretakers of oil fields enough to demonstrate to major oil companies that there are limits to how much is up for grabs. Indeed, Mr. Williams, who built one of his province's largest personal fortunes through a cable television operation, a law practice and an offshore oil services company, portrays the battle as being fought for the American energy supply as well his province's financial fortunes.

But his current battle with some of the world's largest oil companies over a last major offshore reserve has led critics to label him a revolutionary - kind of a North American version of Mr. Chávez.

To the oil companies involved, even at a time of high energy prices and record oil company profits, Newfoundland's current demands make developing Hebron a financial nonstarter.

"We are prepared to move forward on Hebron on reasonable terms," said Mark MacLeod, the manager of external relations for Chevron Canada, which is based in Calgary, Alberta, and manages the project. "But there were a number of issues we were trying to agree on with the province up front. Perhaps, in retrospect, too many."

Hebron, off the coastline of Labrador, holds an estimated 731 million barrels of oil, roughly the equivalent of two years' production from the oil sands of Alberta. Though the second-largest of the province's four known offshore oil and gas fields, it is the last to be developed. And Hebron has special challenges. Its oil lies in cavities that can be reached only by using special - and costly - drilling methods. The field also contains heavy oil that, according to Mr. MacLeod, sells at a discount of about 20 percent to the lighter oils used for benchmark prices.

After letting the property sit explored but largely undeveloped for more than 25 years, the lease holders, which also include Petro-Canada and Norsk Hydro Canada Oil and Gas, were prompted by high oil prices to begin its development early in 2005. That, in turn, meant dealing with Mr. Williams and his province's relationship with its natural resources.

"In a sense, the oil companies find themselves in a larger scenario involving 500 years of politics in this province," said Christopher Dunn, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. "It has to be understood in the context of an attitude towards resources in this province that you don't get in other places. There's a feeling of patrimony."

Mr. Williams has walked away before, only to win in the end. He pulled away from talks six years ago with a communications company to acquire a cable operation. In the end, the company came back to the table and agreed to his price of 232 million Canadian dollars. Mr. Williams became widely known as Danny Millions.

Mr. Williams's list of demands for the Hebron consortium included the building of a refinery and the granting of a 10 percent equity stake in the project.

"This was not an attempt to grab more than we deserve," Mr. Williams said. "I have a business background, I understand risk and return."

During the talks, Mr. Williams eventually dropped the refinery and cut his equity demand to 4.9 percent, and he thought a deal was imminent. That is until the oil companies asked for tax credits that, by Mr. Williams's calculations, would have cost the province between 400 million and 500 million Canadian dollars.

From that point on, according to Mr. Williams, the negotiations became divisive, a situation he attributes to Exxon Mobil.

Exxon Mobil rejects the idea that it played spoilsport, as does Mr. MacLeod of Chevron.

"The decision to suspend Hebron was a unanimous decision of all the parties," said Margot Bruce-O'Connell, a spokeswoman for Exxon Mobil Canada.

While several issues remained unresolved when the negotiations broke down early April, one stood out for the industry side.

"We could not come to terms on the equity issue," Mr. MacLeod said. "We felt we could better meet the province's desire to receive more by an enhanced royalty regime."

While both sides say they are still prepared to reopen negotiations, Chevron quickly began reducing its 60-person operation in Newfoundland. Four days after the talks ended, the senior engineering manager for Hebron was off to another of the company's offshore projects in Australia.

Mr. Williams is now threatening to introduce a law by the end of this year that will revoke the oil companies' lease unless they begin developing the field.

But he takes exception to comparisons in Canadian newspapers outside of Newfoundland of his plan and Mr. Chávez's decision to nationalize foreign controlled oil assets.

"It's not expropriation," Mr. Williams said. "It's use it or lose it."

The idea is not unknown. Alberta, the center of Canada's oil industry, introduced a series of laws in the mid-1970's that essentially give oil and gas leaseholders three years to develop properties or lose their rights.

But Mr. Williams cannot act alone. Unlike oil under the ground, which generally belongs to provinces in Canada, offshore oil is owned by the federal government. In turn, it turns over the management of offshore resources to provinces and shares the resulting royalties.

But Canada's new prime minister, Stephen Harper, another Conservative from Alberta, has indicated that he has no intention of joining Newfoundland's fight. That raises the question of how Mr. Williams can carry out his threat.

If Mr. Williams does succeed in taking back the leases, Mr. MacLeod of Chevron said that the consortium "would not look favorably on it."

While he declined to say what action the companies might take, he added that Mr. Williams would be unlikely to find anyone else interested in developing the property.

"I am not aware of other companies who are itching to get their hands on it," Mr. MacLeod said.

"It's a challenging resource to develop." Peter Fenwick, a fellow at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the former leader of that province's left-leaning New Democratic Party, said that Mr. Williams's showdown could dampen investor interest in the province.

Professor Dunn says he expects that the oil industry will simply try to wait out Mr. Williams.

If so, they should not expect the premier to go quietly.

"I'm independently wealthy, so I'm not in the pay of any particular group or industry," Mr. Williams said. "I'm able to take tough stands. When you take a tough stand against an industry as powerful as oil, you expect a backlash."

AMP Section Name:Energy
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