23 August 2007

Masters of our domain: province lowers royalty for Hebron pre-payout phase

"I've indicated publicly before, when Mr. Grimes offered the more favourable royalty regime, that I wasn't in favour of that," Williams said.

"We now have a situation where we have plus-$55 oil … so there's a lot of profit in the oil industry … and so we expect to get a good return," he said.
Opposition leader Danny Williams, commenting in 2003 on a proposal by the Grimes administration to lower the royalty regime as an incentive to develop the Hebron oil field

Under the memorandum of understanding announced today by Premier Danny Williams, the provincial government will amend the province's royalty regime to apply a flat 1% royalty levy instead of the progressively increasing royalty regime applied to other projects that raised royalties to as much as 7.5% before the project recovered development costs.

The Hebron partners dropped requests for tax concessions that originated in the first round of negotiations. Asked by reporters about the tax concession demand, the Premier stated the demand had been dropped but did not indicate why.

The value of that concession, suggested by the Premier to be worth $500 million, might well be accommodated by the decreased initial royalties. He told the Financial Post:
"It was a significant move," Mr. Williams said in an interview. "They looked to us to do something. We said we will take our [offer to purchase a 4.9% stake] from $100-million up to $110-million, and then we also took our 7% super royalty ask ... to 6.5%, and we tweaked the timing of payment, and that is basically the deal."
The Premier made similar comments during the news conference, as indicated in CTV Newsnet , but made no mention of the change to the province's royalty regime covering the pre-payout phase.

The backgrounder for the Hebron memorandum of understanding refers to a change to royalty regime to "[p]rovide downside royalty protection by keeping the basic royalty rate at one per cent of gross revenue until project costs are recovered (i.e. simple payout)."

This is extremely curious phrasing since there is no obvious need for "downside royalty protection." Royalties are established by the provincial government under the terms of a development agreement. Since the late 1990s the province's generic regime is intended to apply to projects unless altered through negotiations. It establishes 1% as a floor.

Throughout Hebron discussions, Premier Danny Williams insisted one of his goals was to achieve better royalties than previously earned. He stated that the Hebron MOU announced on Wednesday delivered "unprecedented benefits".

In April 2005, Bond Papers first raised the possibility of an entirely new royalty regime for Hebron and noted the possible risks. this was before the Premier introduced the idea of a provincial oil company with an equity stake in the project.

The provincial government's generic royalty regime for offshore projects - developed in 1996 - clearly establishes the minimum initial royalty to be paid to the provincial government is 1% of gross revenue. This increased progressively based on time and production levels until it reaches 7.5%. it remains at this level until simple payout - the recovery of start-up costs - is achieved. At that point significantly higher royalties begin.

The Terra Nova project achieved simple payout within three years of first oil and currently returns 30% royalties to the provincial treasury. White Rose is expected to achieve simple payout within the next year.

The new super-royalty regime, referred to more accurately as Tier Three royalties by the oil companies, actually doesn't appear to replace this decreased initial royalty. The provincial backgrounder states:
The new super royalty for the province is an additional 6.5 per cent of net revenue at higher oil prices (>US$50 WTI/bbl) after net royalty payout;
As the Hibernia royalty regime indicates "Net Royalty consists of a two tier profit sensitive royalty which becomes effective when Net Royalty Payout occurs." Net royalty payout is the "point in time when the costs related to a particular project are recovered plus a specified return allowance on those costs." A similar concept exists in the province's basic offshore royalty regime.

The provincial government will thus not qualify for this added royalty until after simple payout of the project and only provided that certain additional hurdles are met. One of those hurdles is the requirement that oil prices must be above an average of more than US$50 per barrel for West Texas Intermediate crude oil.

If Hebron first oil is achieved in 2015, simple payout is unlikely to be achieved before 2015 unless oil prices remain in excess of US$70 per barrel for an extended period of time.

Natural resources minister Kathy Dunderdale today estimated the project may produce provincial revenues of $16 billion, but this figure must now be held in doubt until the provincial government releases more information.

On the face of it, Dunderdale's figure appeared to be nothing more than an adjustment of Wade Locke's 2006 estimate that put revenues in the range of $8.0 to $10 billion over the life of the project. Locke based his estimate on the existing royalty regime and an assumed average oil price of US$50 per barrel. Dunderdale's figure appeared based on an assumed value of $70 per barrel. However, Locke did not use the modified regime announced on Wednesday.

It is not clear if the equity position would offset the decreased royalty either. Premier Danny Williams said in April 2006 that the 4.9% equity would provide merely an additional $1.5 billion to the province.

According to Wednesday's announcement, the equity stake will cost the province $110 million to acquire plus potentially as much as an additional $539 million as a share of costs, based on the provincial government's development cost estimate of upwards of $11 billion for the project. An revenue coming from the equity stake will accrue to the province's energy company and not to the provincial treasury directly.