14 August 2007

The Hebron Gambit

Listen to what Premier Danny Williams told reports in a scrum on Saturday.

Then consider these observations on resumption of Hebron talks:

1. A second failure would be politically deadly.

Let's start by recognizing that the collapse of the Hebron talks was a big failure for Danny Williams' political reputation. He's the guy who described himself as being about job creation and negotiation when he ran for office in 2003. That was his self-image so the failure of a major negotiation was a deeply felt wound.

It was so deeply felt, in fact, that Williams personally lambasted the local oil industry organization for do nothing more than encouraging both sides to get back to the table and cut a deal. His friends and allies did just as much and more in private to shut down any criticism of Williams.

His remarks were childish - calling NOIA "annoya", for example - and that in itself revealed the depth of the personal setback the Hebron failure was.

Announcement of renewed talks have brought with them renewed and heightened expectations of success. [You can get a real sense of how high those expectations are in a 10 minute radio interview [ram audio file] at the Morning Show website.

The first failure was costly enough.

A second failure could be politically deadly for Danny Williams.

2. Danny needs the cash.

It's not about Hebron so much as Hebron funding the Lower Churchill.

In itself, Hebron would have been a major milestone in offshore oil and gas development. As economist Wade Locke said at the time, development of the 500-odd million barrels from the Hebron field, using the existing royalty regime would have produced between $8.0 and $10.0 billion in provincial royalties over the anticipated 20 year lifespan of the project.

3. Higher prices = greater competition.

Danny needs a deal. The oil companies don't.

Higher oil prices have made Hebron somewhat more attractive, but global competition for scarce development dollars is even stiffer now than it was 18 months ago. Check Bond Papers from a year ago and you'll get some idea of just how higher prices have changed the global environment.

Danny Williams has been working hard to undo the mess created in April 2006 because Hebron isn't the only game in town. The oil companies have plenty of places to spend their development cash. Danny Williams doesn't have the kind of moxie to change the simple laws of global oil economics, no matter what some people think.

As much as he has tried to portray Hebron as a great deal or convince people that he has some power to force a development, the simple truth is he doesn't.

The simple fact is, the longer Hebron goes undeveloped, the less likely it is the project will ever go ahead.

4. Danny will have to compromise.

But compromise is another failure, in the Danny Williams lexicon.

Offal News noted a change in Danny Williams' language on the provincial position in negotiations.

Maybe the change is important.

Maybe it isn't.

The core problem with Danny Williams' stance to date has been his unwillingness to compromise or appear to compromise, even though comprise is essential in all negotiations.

Up to this past weekend, Williams has been adamant on his bottom line for any deal. Last year he had some wiggle room. This year, in the wake of the last failure everyone knows exactly what Danny Williams' demands are.

It's the same position he had when talks collapsed:

- A Hebron deal must produce substantially better royalties. That's the idea of so-called super-royalties. Essentially, that's a premium paid on any barrel of oil sold beyond a benchmark number, like US$50.

- The provincial government must get 4.9% "equity", i.e. a seat at the project table with cash attached.

Unfortunately for Williams, any deal will require a very visible compromise of some sort on his part. Last year, he could have explained away any compromises. Having attacked the oil companies, tried to force Andy Wells onto the offshore board in order to force a development and having insisted he would never buckle, any compromise will be seen for what it is: Danny Williams doing something other than what he promised.

Sure, the open line plants will read their scripts and praise any deal he delivers. The local oil patch will be thankful for a settlement.

Underneath it all though, people will wonder what all the racket was about in the first place.

5. Fool me twice.

Point to watch out for: the major difference in the 2005 offshore deal and the version offered in October 2004 was a change in the average price of oil used to calculate the up-front payment.

Watch for the same sleight of hand this time. Wade Locke based his US$8.0 to $10.0 billion royalty estimate on an average price of oil of US$50/barrel. Assume oil at a higher rate and whatever deal Williams delivers - if he delivers one at all - might look to be more lucrative than it actually is.

6. Shortage of workers means shortage of work.

In the last round of negotiations, the provincial government insisted that any work that could be done in Newfoundland and Labrador had to be done there or the companies would pay a penalty. Reportedly, the companies noted that Long Harbour plus the Lower Churchill would outstrip the local labour and engineering pool making it almost impossible to complete Hebron using only local resources.

Cancellation of Hebron last year meant that workers who would have started work on Hebron have already headed west to the higher wages of Alberta. That made the predicted situation worse, not better and therefore will make it harder for the province to stick with that bargaining point.

Expect that provincial demand to drop off the table or for Hebron to get preference over the Lower Churchill. otherwise, the cost of the project will be forced up.

7. How would Danny pay for the "equity" position?

A question that has never been answered. Odds are he will simply defer any revenues until the purchase price has been paid. Again, people should wonder why the project was delayed for the better part of two years for no significant cash or other benefits.

8. What's the "equity" thing all about and what's it worth?

Asked and answered in July, by Bond.

9. The conflict of interest remains.

In last Saturday's scrum, Danny Williams said that Hydro boss Ed martin is heading the provincial negotiating team.

That means the fundamental conflict of interest Martin represents remains clearly in place. The conflict of interest - the exact opposite of the Norwegian model the Premier claims to be following - may continue to affect negotiations adversely.

10. The last minute gamble with the gambit

There was a workable agreement to develop Hebron on January 26, 2006. Then Danny Williams apparently tossed new demands on the table. Let's hope that doesn't happen again.