01 April 2007

Which is to be Master? Part 1

Originally written in mid 2004, Which is to be master? was an attempt to dissect the Williams' administration's efforts to change the Atlantic Accord (1985).

The issue of offshore revenues and Equalization hasn't disappeared in the past three years. Since this paper contains some useful background information, Bond Papers offers it in sections.


Which is to be master?

An assessment of the Williams administration proposal to amend the Atlantic Accord

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

- Charles Ludwig Dodgson, (Lewis Carrol), Through the Looking Glass

A. Introduction

It is now commonplace for people to believe that neither Newfoundland and Labrador nor Nova Scotia is being treated fairly by the federal government with respect to revenues from offshore oil and gas resources. As the story goes, the federal government claws back upwards of 85% of revenues to the two east coast provinces under the Equalization program, contrary to the two Accords that govern development of the oil and gas fields. Both Premier Danny Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador and Premier John Hamm of Nova Scotia contend that this clawback hampers their provinces from developing fully and from realizing the full benefits of the oil and gas resources off their coastlines.

This paper examines the Williams administration’s proposal to amend the Atlantic Accord. The findings are based on publicly available documents including the Atlantic Accord, the implementation legislation, the Williams government’s overhead slide presentation released to news media as well as papers and public comments offered by supporters of the provincial government’s approach.

B. The Williams Administration and the offshore

There is no single, concise, public statement of the Williams government’s proposal to amend the Atlantic Accord. To date the provincial government has released only a copy of an overhead slide presentation, apparently made to federal officials on 04 March 2004. In addition, the Premier has made public statements and issued at least three news releases on the subject. No other correspondence between the Government of Canada and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is in the public domain.

The Blue Print, the Progressive Conservative election platform, contains several references to resources and revenues from the offshore. Since they are the party’s platform they must be taken as statements of policy for the new government, or at least a statement of intentions to guide the government’s overall policy. This assessment is based on these documents, statements by senior officials of the Williams administration published before October 2003 as well as comments by John Crosbie.

The Blue Print commits the Williams government to “seek jurisdictional control and ownership over petroleum and other economic resources in the offshore as a means to achieve greater prosperity for our Province and more opportunity for our people.”

With respect to oil and gas revenues and revenue sharing, the Blue Print commits the Progressive Conservative party to “press the federal government to remove all non-renewable resource revenues from the calculation of equalization payments. In exchange, we will commit, in a formal federal-provincial agreement if necessary, to spend non-renewable revenues to modernize economic infrastructure in the Province and to bring down the provincial debt, so that future generations of Canadians living in this Province will continue to benefit long after the resources are used up.”

The only specific reference to the Atlantic Accord is a commitment to use its industrial offset provisions to the fullest extent possible. The Blue print also commits the provincial government to seeking transfer to the provincial government of the 8.5% share of the Hibernia project held by the Government of Canada.

In early 2004, Premier Danny Williams began discussions with the province’s federal cabinet representative John Efford to ensure that the province received what Premier Williams described prior to a February meeting between the two as “100% of our offshore revenues.” According to Williams, Ottawa gave a bad deal to Newfoundland and Labrador in the Atlantic Accord. The proposal would change the Equalization offset provisions of the Atlantic Accord to “provide a payment equal to 100% of the net direct provincial offshore revenue”. Net direct revenue is defined as “Royalties and Corporate Income Tax which is generated in the NL offshore area, less the equalization clawback (currently at 70%)”.

The objective was described in similar terms by a March news release: “Premier Williams has been actively pursuing the federal government to allow Newfoundland and Labrador to receive 100 per cent of the provincial revenues from offshore oil and gas.” A similar statement was made in April: “Premier Danny Williams today reiterated his government’s position on the Atlantic Accord and reaffirmed the province will continue to aggressively pursue the federal government to allow Newfoundland and Labrador to receive 100 per cent of the provincial revenues from offshore oil and gas.”

Changes to the offset formula would end what both the Blue Print and Premier Williams have repeatedly described as a “clawback” of resource revenues by the federal government through reductions in the province’s Equalization entitlement. The notion of an Equalization clawback is clearly described in the Blue Print:
A Better Deal on Oil and Gas Revenues

The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador will collect billions of dollars in revenues over the next 20 to 30 years from oil, natural gas, and other minerals. Less than a quarter of the revenues will stay in the Province. Ottawa will simply deduct most of the increased revenues from equalization payments. This deduction is known as "the equalization clawback".

The clawback denies us the opportunity to build a better future for our children and grandchildren. We should not have to consume our non-renewable resources for current expenses and leave none of the inheritance for our children and grandchildren.
Of particular interest, both Premier Williams and other Conservative party commentators have linked provincial government offshore revenues with the concept of the province being the principal beneficiary of offshore development under the Atlantic Accord. In his news release of 12 March 2004, Premier Williams said:
"Essentially, we are asking the federal government to live up to the spirit and intent of the "principal beneficiary" component of the Atlantic Accord. Currently, the federal government receives 86 per cent of the revenues of our offshore petroleum resources, while the province receives a meager 14 per cent," added the Premier. "This revenue sharing is completely contrary to the spirit and intent of the accord and must be addressed now before these non-renewable resources are gone forever. Our province is facing a very serious fiscal situation which must be addressed. We are making tough choices to manage our expenditures and to grow our revenues at the provincial level. We, as a province, are putting into place a long-term plan to grow our economy; however, Ottawa must also be a part of the solution."
The overhead slide presentation describes the Atlantic Accord as being a ‘“Memorandum of Agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador on offshore oil and gas resource management and revenue sharing.”’ The paper includes several slides purporting to confirm that “[a]nalysis shows that Newfoundland and Labrador will not be the principal beneficiary of the revenues generated from oil and gas developments.”

Similar arguments have been advanced by John Crosbie, who served as co-chair of the federal Conservative Party’s 2004 election campaign in Newfoundland and Labrador.
9. Mr. Martin’s commitment is worth nothing unless he puts in writing that “principal beneficiary” means that Newfoundland and Labrador is to receive 100 per cent of all offshore revenues, including royalties, provincial corporation income taxes, all fees and bonuses etc. on a net basis with no clawback effect and to be received until we become a “have” province with agreed benchmarks as to when “have” status is achieved. [Run-on sentence in the original. ]
Flowing from these statements of the provincial government position, four issues must be addressed. These are ownership of offshore resources, the origins of the Atlantic Accord and federal government intentions, the existence of a “clawback” in the Equalization program, and definition of the term “principal beneficiary”.

Continued in Part 2