Saving Alberta’s oil fund

A new report explains how the western province can boost the value of its oil fund — and end up in an even better situation than Norway.

Norway's oil fund — the place where it channels all of its oil revenue, and which it uses to pay for its social services — was worth $905 billion at the beginning of 2014. This means Norway is running a surplus of nearly a trillion dollars because of oil revenue.

Alberta is a different story. Early in 2014, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation calculated that Alberta taxpayers "are on the hook for $7.7 billion in debt, or about $1,925 per person," as reported in the Huffington Post. The Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, which was started in 1976, holds only $15 billion in assets.

What went wrong? And is it too late to be fixed? Those are the big questions, according to a report from The School of Public Policy (SPP) in Calgary, authored by Ton van den Bremer and Rick van der Ploeg of Oxford University.

The report’s authors do not think Alberta should follow the Norwegian model. They think Alberta's fund can be "saved"; in fact, "the right plan for Alberta can set the province up in  better shape for the future than even Norway will be." The Norway fund distributes a constant dividend of 4% to government in a model that will ultimately cause the dividend to fall as the belowground asset is depleted. The authors propose a more sustainable formula: the dividend of the Heritage Fund should be a falling proportion of fund assets. "In other words," write the authors, "the province will want to calculate an appropriate dividend that is a fraction not just of the size of the financial fund (aboveground), but a constant fraction of total wealth — the value of the belowground assets and the aboveground asset portfolio. This ensures that the dividend grows in line with GDP."

If Alberta could save 30% of its oil revenue, it would be able to boost the fund's value to the equivalent of 40% of the province's GDP by 2030, to 100% by 2050 and to 165% by 2100.