A top petro engineer for wealthy Norway says Canada is 'a fantastic country' that's 'totally mismanaged by design.' Fifth in a series.
Eyes on the prize: Norway petro expert Rolf Wiborg looks at Canada and sees billions lost by negotiating weakly with oil corporations.
Rolf Wiborg is sizing me up -- something I imagine he does with most people sitting across his desk. I am in his modest office at the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, an organization he helped lead for many years. He leans close with a practiced and penetrating gaze, raising his voice as he recounts how he once dealt with a visiting American oil executive who he felt was "bullshitting" him.
"I told him, 'Stop! We have 45 minutes left and you've spent 15 talking about nothing. My time is paid by the Norwegian taxpayer and your time in Norway is deducted from your company's taxes, so we pay for around 80 per cent of your time as well. So we better spend that 45 minutes EFFECTIVELY!'"
I am trying to imagine a Canadian public servant having a similar interaction with a foreign oil delegation, and appreciating just how far removed our country is from replicating what has been achieved in Norway. Yet this attitude is exactly what Wiborg believes is required to establish a productive working relationship with representatives from the world's most powerful industrial sector.
"After that he stopped bullshitting me and he had respect. These guys -- the same people who are traveling to Canada -- they understand straight language. That's how they operate. I've worked with these companies since 1975, and for 19 of those years for one of the toughest."
Wiborg has four decades experience in the oil industry -- both for private companies and as a Norwegian regulator. He completed his master's in petroleum engineering in 1975 at the University of Alberta and went on to become the North America exploration manager for Phillips Petroleum, now ConocoPhillips. In the 1990s he was promoted to their deputy managing director in Norway, overseeing over 300,000 barrels a day of offshore production.
In 1997 he moved to the public sector. He is now a principal engineer for the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD). And while the pay is one fifth what he would make working for Phillips, he is obviously passionate about using his expertise to leave a legacy for future Norwegians.
"Why are people like me here? I make a million Kroner a year [about $170,000 Canadian] but I used to receive five or six million the last few years working for Phillips. I work here because I'm working for my children and my grandchildren, for the sick and old, and Norwegians not yet born."
As our conversation turns towards Canada and the oil sands, Wiborg becomes even more direct. "The tar sands is all about providing secure supply for the people south of the border. And they should be allowed to do it but only if they do it right. Protecting the future of Canadian nature and human life, looking out for local residents, providing jobs and wealth to Canada. It can all be done, that's what we are doing here. But you've got to stop thinking like a loser!"
"It's this losing mentality in Canada, except in hockey and few other things. It's an inferiority complex and I still don't see why. You have the power. You control access to the resources, oil, gas and minerals. You control the land. Canada should be a global powerhouse!"
Wiborg studied and worked in Alberta from 1973 to 1975. For many years considered moving his family there as a refuge, or as he puts it he kept that as their "kinderegg." Yet as our conversation continues it becomes clear that Canada's compromised relationship with outside oil interests is one of the factors that convinced him to remain in Norway.
"I gave up on Canada as a safe haven. Something happened between the mid-'70s and the 1990s. I still haven't figured out what exactly but it happened all over Canada, not just Alberta. I realized that this was no longer my dream country."
Canada's barriers to Norwegian success
Most Canadians are well aware of what happened in the 1980s. The decade saw the election of Brian Mulroney, the Free Trade Agreement, and a continuing devolution of powers toward the provinces -- something that Wiborg feels is one of the main impediments toward a coherent national energy strategy such as what has been achieved in Norway.
"I know one place in the world, one nation that could have successfully followed the Norwegian model, and still could do it, and that's Canada. But Canada has two things stopping it: the provinces, because you need a system of equally distributing wealth, and also the mindset that someone with a title or money knows better than you how to run your own affairs."
As a non-Albertan, I am trying to visualize a universe where the province would cede a centimetre of control over petroleum policy to the federal government or the rest of Canada. The National Energy Program of the 1980s was the last attempt in this direction and to this day, the long-cancelled policy remains bitterly resented by many Albertans. But Wiborg feels this hoarding of oil influence actually acts against certainty of doing business in Alberta.
"If every Canadian knew that developing the tar sands was going to put food on their family's table and take care of their parents when they are sick, then it would be a whole different ballgame. Simple. It was simple when I lived there in 1973-1975 and it's simple today. But I never figured out why such a resource-rich nation would let foreign companies come in and take most of the profits. No wonder you get antagonism, both within Alberta and from other parts of Canada."
And Wiborg feels that antagonism undermines Alberta's access to outside markets. He frames it from the industry point of view: "They have paid billions to develop your oil and now surrounding provinces or federal authorities are preventing them from getting it to market. This kind of bullshit doesn't happen in Norway because every Norwegian knows they still own the resources."
Norway is not merely a rent collector but a full business partner, with technical expertise and capital to match the resources of the private sector. Their two state-owned oil companies directly own about 60-65 per cent of the oil production on the Norwegian Shelf. Canada and the provinces have virtually no equity share of our nation's petroleum production.
Wiborg points out the business advantage of the Norwegian model where the government is itself a business stakeholder in some of the most promising exploration and production leases.
"People claim the companies would leave if you take over part of the resource. Not if Canadian governments are taking the biggest risk with them. Not only that, the companies will very quickly understand that they have a partner in the voting public, which controls the bureaucracy and politicians. If its proved to the taxpayers that what industry is doing makes sense then they will never seek to stop them because it’s in their best interest too."
Dollars, political sense and oil sands
Wiborg speaks plainly about the geo-political necessity of developing the Alberta oil sands. "Today the Canadian tar sands represents as big or bigger reserves than what is sitting in Saudi Arabia if today's oil prices stay and technology brings costs further down. The U.S. is spending billions projecting military power in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. If you force your allies and neighbours to project power around the world and lose so many lives, how the hell can you maintain your friendships long term? And then things get ugly fast. So play along. But play along making your own rules. And that means you've got to stick together so that everyone in Canada sees that there is a benefit for them, today and in the future."
Wiborg also flags the link between low Canadian royalty rates and comparatively low prices at the U.S. gas pump. "Can developing the tar sands be done safely and soundly? Yes, technology can do that but it costs. That's what this is all about. And when you put that cost in, how much profit is there left to tax for Canada? That depends on the prices, technology and costs and how much you elect to produce each day. If you put too much on the market the price goes down and guess who benefits? The consumer in the U.S. and the other places where they have net input. One litre of gasoline in most developed nations costs less in a gas station than one litre of bottled water. What the hell is going on?"
Wiborg to Canadians: 'You have to give up this idea that someone else has the right to tell you what to do with your resources or how your society should run.'
It is these outside interests that Wiborg sees at play in Canada and Alberta. "There have been lots of plots created south of the border by people who would hate to have a strong Ottawa or strong bureaucracies in the provinces. Not necessarily the U.S. government, but the companies. Think of all the trouble they would have if they couldn't come to Canada and play God and get away with it. It's obvious and it always has been. But I had plenty of intelligent Canadian friends back in the '70s who didn't want to hear about it, didn't want to think about it, didn't want to open their eyes."
Such blunt speculation puts a different light on the emergence of the Wildrose Alliance in Alberta. The party ran a joint website with the oil industry and ran a slate of 13 candidates from the petroleum sector with a goal of creating dedicated political representation for the oil and gas industry. Their leader, Danielle Smith pledged to "never again" adjust the royalty system without "extensive consultation with all stakeholders."
'You sign here or you leave'
So what does Wiborg think it will take to create a truly made in Canada energy policy?
"You have to leave the feudal thinking and leave the idea that people coming to exploit you have the right to tell you what to do. When people came here some Norwegians said, 'The oil companies are going to rape us.' Now some of the oil companies say we raped them."
"It can be done, but do the Canadian people have the power and the will? Do they have the collectiveness and guts to do it? I've followed your politics for many years and I don't see it. When I was in Canada I saw a system of regulators who were very much infused with the U.S. way of thinking, but also willing to make tough stands when required. Today I believe most of them are and impressed by suits and the titles and no longer dare to stand up and fight for the Canadian resource rent."
Wiborg feels that Canada's comparatively meek politicians and public servants are allowing billions of dollars to slip through Canada's fingers. It seems our famous national politeness has been a very expensive vice when negotiating with the international oil industry.
"You can't export the Norwegian system without exporting the thinking that goes with it. You have to give up this idea that someone else has the right to tell you what to do with your resources or how your society should run. It's bullshit. You want to come to our country and produce our resources? Then you play by our rules. You sign here or you leave."
As an example of the attitude needed by Canada, Wiborg recounts another meeting at the NPD where a foreign oil executive attempted to intimidate and mislead representatives of the Norwegian government.
"You have to hire bureaucrats who are tough enough to say, 'I don't care who you think you are, sir. If you execute what you're saying you will be breaking our laws. You can be sent to jail, and your company will be stripped for assets and thrown out of the country. Do you understand? Don't try to trick us. You're not allowed to lie to the Norwegian authorities. Facts on the table. You don't distort your plans, your problems or your production. You don't cheat on royalties. Try that once and see what happens.'"
Can Canada overcome what Wiborg calls our national "inferiority complex?" He is not overly hopeful.
"You still have all the opportunities, qualities and resources. But you are missing one thing: you don't know what a Canadian is. You know it on the hockey rink but you haven't been able to build a nation yet. It's sad to watch."
'You should be where we are'
My conversation with one of Norway's top oil engineers and enforcers of the national interest has taken the two of us down a twisting road of comparison between his nation and mine. It's clear he believes Canada has badly misplayed the oil-rich hand we've been dealt. Does Rolf Wiborg believe we've blown our opportunity once and for all? Not necessarily.
"You're in a better strategic position than we were and are. You should be among the winners in the globalized world. You should be where we are. Alberta Heritage Fund should have been the Canadian Heritage Fund. You can still make it. When are Canadians going to grow up and realize that they are a powerhouse with resources the world needs and take that responsibility seriously? Many good politicians in Canada have asked that question. So far they have been failed by their voters and by short-term thinking."
Wiborg leaves me with this sentiment: "I love Canada. I love Canadians. It's a fantastic country. But in my opinion it's totally mismanaged, and mismanaged by design."
Listening to such tough love about Canada is not pleasant, but Wiborg speaks from decades of experience in the oil industry and a proven record of success in Norway. What could our country be like if we stopped allowing ourselves to be pushed around by outside interests clamoring for our global treasure trove of resources?
Consider that Norway has no public debt, enjoys enviable social programs, and has $600 billion of oil wealth in the bank -- putting them about $1.2 trillion ahead of Canada counting our national debt.
Canadians are now being told we must choose between public services or balanced budgets as 19,000 civil servant positions are being eliminated. Norwegians need no such Faustian bargain. Looking in a Norwegian mirror, it seems that Canada is choosing our famous national politeness over our destiny there for the seizing.