Alberta’s Oil Sands: An Unsecured Asset? An Analysis of the Mine Financial Security Program in Relation to Surface Mining of the Alberta Oil Sands

Michelle Cook

Abstract


This article conducts a comprehensive review of Alberta’s Mine Financial Security Program (MFSP), the provincial program that governs the collection of financial assurance for reclamation liabilities (also known as “reclamation liability security,” “financial reclamation sureties,” or “closure bonds”). This article assesses the MFSP program in relation to surface oil sands mining. It concludes that while the recently implemented MFSP has improved some aspects of the oil sands reclamation security regime, Alberta’s MFSP still suffers from issues of transparency, inadequate collection of financial security, and utilization of underinclusive classifications of environmental liabilities. Moreover, this article analyzes the particular risk that oil sands assets have of “stranding” (namely, being unanticipatedly or prematurely written off, downwardly revalued, or converted to a liability) as well as how stranding would impact Alberta’s financial assurance regime.

This article concludes that while the oil sands are at a heightened risk for asset stranding compared to the international oil industry as a whole, international oil and gas assets are unlikely to become completely stranded. This article also finds that investors have likely already priced the risk of asset stranding at 1.5–2 percent and will be unlikely to readjust their portfolios unless divestment campaigns strengthen or environmental legislation becomes more certain. The MFSP uses a method that does not account for large fluctuations in oil prices, nor does it sufficiently account for the risk of partial stranding. If asset stranding were to occur, the only way the Alberta government would be able to afford the costs of reclamation would be to paradoxically develop the very resource that was defaulted on, against the environmental legislation or political pressures that caused the stranding.


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