Canada's Hibernia Oil Project: Investment or Boondoggle?

The massive oil platform is heavy enough to deflect giant icebergs - but perhaps not criticism for its rising costs

LIKE giant birds building an immense nest, construction cranes hang over the Hibernia project, a concrete offshore oil platform so heavy its designers say a 6-million-ton iceberg could hit it - and bounce off.

It also has 16 huge concrete ''teeth'' to chew up any iceberg that nestles alongside. Both weight and teeth are needed, because the rig is supposed to sit on the ocean floor 200 miles from Newfoundland's coast - in ''Iceberg Alley,'' where bergs from Greenland are pushed south by ocean currents.

The requirement that Hibernia be able to stand up to icebergs has made it so massive and expensive that some have dubbed it ''the eighth wonder of the world.''

But not Tom Best. A Newfoundland fisherman concerned about the impacts of oil spills on fishing and icebergs bigger than 6 million tons, he calls Hibernia ''trouble.'' And he is not alone.

Five years and C$4 billion (US$2.9 billion) since it began, the 275-foot-high concrete base - and the 10-story-high production complex to sit atop that base - won't be completed until mid-1997. With construction costs estimated at C$5.8 billion, it is certainly one of the most costly construction projects in North America.

A year behind schedule and a billion dollars over budget, critics say Hibernia is an environmentally questionable and unduly expensive ''make-work project'' developed under the former government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to reap political benefits by creating jobs in Newfoundland.

''The government never did a cost-benefit analysis,'' says Douglas May, professor of economics at Memorial University in St. John's, a former technical adviser on economic matters to the Hibernia Environmental Assessment Panel. ''They [the consortium and the government] considered it inappropriate. It was odd to me as an economist, but it was part of the agreement that such an appraisal would not be done.''

The project, he and others agree, will probably be profitable for the four participating oil companies, in part, because of Canadian taxpayer equity, grants, loans, and loan guarantees. These total C$3.4 billion, according to Canada's Auditor General.

Ian Doig, a Calgary oil analyst, told the Monitor that Hibernia will produce the world's most expensive oil - about US$26 per barrel - and is only economical for the oil companies because of government subsidies.

But spokesmen for companies with a stake in the project - Mobil Oil Canada Properties (33 percent), Chevron Canada Resources (27 percent), Petro-Canada (25 percent), and Murphy Atlantic Offshore Oil Company (6 percent) - disagree. They say the extraction cost - including production costs over the 19-year life of Hibernia - will be about US$13 per barrel. That is low enough to allow a comfortable profit, if prices stay around today's US$17 a barrel.

''We've been investors in Hibernia since [the oil-bearing formation] was discovered in 1979 and it has never lost its allure to us,'' says Heather Douglas, a Mobil Oil spokeswoman in Calgary. ''It's a good oil reserve, close to North America. We go into projects to make money and a fair return for shareholders - and Mobil is confident it will do the same on this project.''

The other big shareholder is the Canadian government, which directly owns 8.5 percent of the project through Canada Hibernia Holding Corporation. It was forced to step in and assume Gulf Oil's share when it pulled out in 1992, a move that reportedly cost the company C$300 million.

But Canada's stake is even larger than it appears.

Through its 20 percent stake in Petro-Canada, the government effectively owns another 5 percent in Hibernia - giving it the equivalent of a 13 percent equity stake, Mr. Doig says. Canada's share is for sale, but there are no buyers, an indication of the project's problems, he says.

''Canada is now responsible for its share of any cost overruns incurred, plus any other responsibilities that fall to the owners,'' said a review of the project released last November by Canada's Auditor General.

Despite its huge financial commitment, the government has had difficulty establishing even the basic criteria to evaluate the project, the Auditor General reports.

Following audits in 1992 and 1994, the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, which funded the project, is reportedly close to having an ''evaluation framework.'' An evaluation is not expected until oil production begins in late 1997, the 1994 Auditor General's report says.

Originally conceived during the late 1970s, Hibernia was initially promoted as a contribution to Canada's energy self-sufficiency. Then, when Canada joined a free-trade agreement with the United States in 1989, the project was to be part of a continental energy agreement, Mr. May says. Later, it was billed as a way to boost technological expertise and jobs.

Hibernia was from the beginning a ''funny project,'' May says, a ''mega-project for all reasons.'' Lack of a clear purpose for government involvement has made it difficult to evaluate today.

Still, Barry Rodgers, director of energy policy for Newfoundland, says the Hibernia project has had a ''tremendous impact'' on the province. More than 5,000 people are employed building it. Another 1,000 long-term jobs will be involved in operating the drilling rig.

Mr. Rodgers concedes, however, that whether Hibernia is a wonder of the world or a costly boondoggle ''depends on your perspective.''

''If you look at this project from the point of view of the oil companies or from the view of those employed by the project, it's positive,'' he says. ''As to whether the government should have invested a billion dollars in Hibernia, I can't answer that. But the overall net effect is positive.''

Net results of Hibernia's impact on the Newfoundland economy - and the total financial damage (or royalties) to Canadian taxpayers - won't be known until about 2016. Hibernia is expected to pump 125,000 barrels a day, 615 million barrels in all.

In the meantime, the project threatens to get more expensive, Doig says. Other costs he expects will add hundreds of millions of dollars to the C$16 billion price tag (over 19 years) include heavy insurance costs during the ''tow-out'' of the rig and decommissioning it after the oil is gone.

Similarly skeptical is Mr. Best who, as president of the Association of Newfoundland and Labrador fisheries cooperatives, represents about 4,000 fishermen. He says environmental debate over the impacts of any possible oil spill were cut short in the province.

''We think government is avoiding discussion because offshore oil development is the government's priority,'' he says.

Rodgers denies that environmental regulations or consultations on the Hibernia project are being overlooked. But he acknowledges high hopes for further oil development in Newfoundland.

With Hibernia in place, the Newfoundland government is hoping more oil drilling will follow Hibernia to help replace the decimated cod-fishing industry. Giving substance to that hope is a discovery this summer by Hunt Oil of Houston and PanCanadian Petroleum Ltd. of Calgary on Newfoundland's western coast.

AFTER the find, however, some could not resist pointing up the irony that the new discovery came without a dime of public investment in a calm offshore area devoid of icebergs.

It seems ''amazing and cartoonish that amid the development of Hibernia at an enormous capital cost, that something rivaling it in size may be happening right there in western Newfoundland,'' Wilf Gobert of Peters & Co. Ltd., a Calgary-based brokerage firm, told the Toronto-based Globe and Mail.

Will Hibernia be Canada's last ''megaproject''? Some suggest it will be, but others question whether the government has learned its lesson.

''We have long experience in Canada that, once public funds have been spent, it's just water under the bridge,'' May says. ''To know what benefits you received means closely monitoring to see if expectations are met. That hasn't been done so far with Hibernia. The jury's still out.''

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