09 November 2009

Freedom from Information: oil royalties version

After two e-mail requests to the provincial finance department yielded nothing but delays for two weeks, a simple e-mail to the federal natural resources department produced information on the provincial oil royalties the provincial finance department had trouble releasing.

And it only took four working days.

The request on October 21 to the provincial finance department was simple enough:

What is the total offshore royalty received by the provincial government from 01 Apr 09 to 30 September 2009?

The first response (October 23) from the department spokesperson said:

The information you are requesting is provided at the end of the year in the public accounts and can be made available to you at that time.

Of course, the estimates are publicised at the end of the fiscal year but the audited financial statements  - the public accounts -  for 2009 won’t be released until February 2011. 

That seemed like an unusually long and unnecessary wait for information that should be readily available.

Oil royalties are collected each month by the federal natural resources department (NRCAN) under the terms of the 1985 Atlantic Accord.  The amounts collected are set by the provincial government through its own royalty regimes for Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose.  The royalties collected are turned over in their entirety to the provincial finance department monthly.

A second request (October 23) to provincial finance asked for the reason the information was being withheld.   The reply to that inquiry came on November 4, 2009 and gave a new, more curious response:

For the particular timeframe of your request, the department is still receiving the relevant information.  When the data collection is complete, the information will be made available. 

Still receiving information?  Now that’s a bit of an odd idea since the finance department should be in the process of completing a mid-year financial update for public release.  The figures on oil royalties would be sitting right there on someone’s computer, presumably since they form a very big part of the provincial government’s annual revenues. 

If nothing else, finance officials produce monthly statements of account showing revenues and expenditures both for government as a whole and for individual departments.   It would be exceedingly strange if the finance department didn’t have the figures for at least April to August. 

As it is, your humble e-scribbler went looking for the information in October.  It might have been a bit optimistic to get even the September figures.  At this point – early November - provincial officials should have September done and October should be well on the way.

But nothing at all until the whole thing was complete?  Highly unusual, to say the least.

Your humble e-scribbler turned instead to NRCAN.  An e-mail inquiry to the NRCAN manager of media relations on November 5 for the year to date oil royalty figures produced the response on November 9:  the oil royalty figures for April to August 2009.  September is in the pipeline and even October might be available within a few weeks.

It was that simple and that fast.