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The biggest foreign lease holder in Canada’s oil sands isn’t Exxon Mobil or Chevron. It’s the Koch brothers.

David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece said Koch Industries was the largest lease holder in Canada’s oil sands. On a net acreage basis the company is the largest American and foreign holder of leases in the region, but it might narrowly trail two Canadian companies overall. For more details on the top holders of oil sands leases, go here.

You might expect the biggest foreign lease owner in Canada's oil sands, or tar sands, to be one of the international oil giants, like Exxon Mobil or Royal Dutch Shell. But that isn't the case. The biggest non-Canadian lease holder in the northern Alberta oil sands is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the privately-owned cornerstone of the fortune of conservative Koch brothers Charles and David.

The Koch Industries subsidiary holds leases on 1.1 million acres -- an area nearly the size of Delaware -- in the oil sands region of Alberta, Canada, according to an activist group that studied Alberta provincial records. The Post confirmed the group’s findings with Alberta Energy, the provincial government’s ministry of energy. Separately, industry sources familiar with oil sands leases said Koch’s lease holdings could be closer to two million acres. The companies with the next biggest net acreage positions in oil sands leases are Conoco Phillips and Shell, both close behind.

What is Koch Industries doing there? The company wouldn't comment on its holdings or strategy, but it appears to be a long-term investment that could produce tens of thousands of barrels of the region's thick brand of crude oil in the next three years and perhaps hundreds of thousands of barrels a few years after that.

The finding about the Koch acreage is likely to inflame the already contentious debate about the Keystone XL Pipeline and spur activists and environmentalists seeking to slow or stop planned expansions of production from the northern Alberta oil sands, or tar sands. Environmental groups have already made opposing the pipeline their leading cause this spring and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called the Koch brothers Charles and David “un-American” and “shadowy billionaires.”

The link between Koch and Keystone XL is, however, indirect at best. Koch’s oil production in northern Alberta is “negligible,” according to industry sources and quarterly publications of the provincial government. Moreover, Koch has not reserved any space in the Keystone XL pipeline, a process that usually takes place before a pipeline is built.  The pipeline also does not run anywhere near Koch’s refining facilities. And TransCanada, owner of the Keystone routes, says Koch is not expected to be one of the pipeline’s customers.

Still, the activist group that is publicizing the figures about Koch holdings in the oil sands – the International Forum on Globalization – is arguing that Koch will benefit indirectly. The IFG contends that the Keystone XL pipeline will create competition among rail and other pipelines and lower transportation costs for all oil sands producers, bolstering profit margins and making additional reserves economically viable.

“IFG’s intention is to demonstrate the Koch-Keystone connection,” says IFG’s Victor Menotti.

This new report is the second one IFG has issued in six months about Koch Industries and the oil sands. Last October, IFG said that Koch owned two million acres in the oil sands; now it says the true figure – based on the Alberta provincial government’s mineral lease records that it links to -- is smaller but still an impressive, industry-leading 1.1 million acres.

Koch is not generally known as a major stakeholder in the oil sands where the major players have been the likes of Royal Dutch Shell, Conoco Phillips, Suncor, Exxon Mobil and Chevron. Chinese companies have about a 5 percent stake in current production, according to a report by IHS CERA.

Suzanne Bayley, a biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta who studies the oil sands, said she was surprised to learn of the Kochs’ holdings, calling them "significant” given the fact that the total leased area in the region amounted to 35 million acres.

Koch Industries would not say how many acres of oil sands leases it holds in Alberta and would not comment on the IFG report.

The Post has taken a look at who’s who and what’s what behind an issue that is sure to be replayed over and over in this election year.

Who is IFG?

The group describes itself as a think tank that began in opposition to the North American Free Trade Association and the World Trade Organization, which it says “were viewed as the globalization of corporate power and an inherently unsustainable economic model.” In the 15 years since the big WTO brawl in Seattle, the IFG has taken on issues regarding the environment, indigenous people, and climate finance. It says it gives “voice to local social movement critiques of the economic system and offer alternative visions.”

The material about Koch and its oil sands leases has been provided to The Post by Victor Menotti, who was arrested during the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle back in November 1999. But he says the IFG concentrates on research and education, not direct action.

The group receives funding from a variety of non-profit foundations, including Park Foundation, Tides Foundation, Janelia Foundation, Tarbell Family Foundation, Cloud Mountain Foundation, Klein Family Foundation, Susie Tompkins Buell Foundation, Buckley Foundation, and European Climate Foundation.

What is IFG saying?

It’s saying that Koch is perhaps the biggest investor in oil sands leases in Alberta. Its report includes links to 299 lease documents, which indicate that Koch has been buying leases in Alberta for several years, in some cases as long ago as 2002.

The provinicial government Alberta Energy said Thursday in response to a request that “we confirm that Koch Oil Sands Operating ULC is the Designated Representative of 298 Alberta Crown Oil Sands leases covering approximately 455,000 hectares (1.1 million acres).” The ministry’s Tenure division waived its usual fee for such information saying it was in the public interest to respond to such inquiries.

IFG says that Koch will reap huge benefits – albeit indirect ones -- from the Keystone XL pipeline.  The reasoning? If better pipeline and rail facilities make the business of oil transportation more efficient and more competitive then the price of shipping crude will be cheaper for all oil producers in the region. It would curtail discounts on the crude, and would make more areas economically viable.

“The biggest way Koch could benefit from Keystone is by the pipeline's acting as the ‘keystone’ of oil industry strategy to increase the ‘takeaway’ capacity for producers of Canadian crude, whereby getting more oil to more lucrative markets, and ending the deep discounts on Canadian crude currently glutting markets,” said IFG’s Menotti.

What did IFG say back in October?

In its earlier report, “The Billionaires’ Carbon Bomb,” the IFG said that “because of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Kochs could make an additional $100 billion in profits from their production operations alone.” The group, using rough estimates, assumed a $15 a barrel additional profit on six billion barrels of reserves that would become economically recoverable.

The IFG estimate is open to debate. Many of the leases held by Koch were purchased before the Keystone XL pipeline was even proposed and were presumably economically viable without it, and at a much lower oil price back then. Moreover, the IFG's first report used acreage estimates nearly twice as large as the updated acreage figures. But Menotti says that even the smaller figure, “although it may not be as much acreage as some reports estimated they might have, it is still over one million acres and worth tens of billions of dollars.”

Another key assumption underlying the IFG argument is that if Keystone XL is not built then other transportation will not be able to replace it. That may be right, but it’s different from the conclusions in the recent State Department environmental impact statement, which says that rail expansion or other pipelines would enable oil sands development to continue unimpeded.

University of Alberta Business School professor Andrew Leach wrote in an e-mail that “some oil sands growth will occur with or without new pipelines” but “the question is how much.”

“The wild card is the cost of rail shipment at scale and the prices which would be charged for shipping by rail if it became clear that pipelines could not be built,” he wrote, adding that rail shipment is cheap write now because these companies are trying to compete with pipelines.

Right now it costs at least a couple of dollars more per barrel to move oil by rail, according to the State Department report, but that could rise if the construction of additional pipelines were in jeopardy, or if either the U.S. or Canadian government imposed greater regulations on rail in the wake of recent accidents.

What else is Koch doing in Alberta now?

Koch hasn’t been idle in Alberta. It has been taking an active interest in developing its properties, and has made requests for permits for new production. In a 2012 offering to sell a portion of its lease holdings, Koch said it had drilled over 100 wells and done seismic work to delineate its resources.

Koch has a substantial oil terminal operation east of Edmonton at Hardisty, the starting point for Keystone XL. But other pipelines also start at Hardisty, which has been a major oil terminal for the region for some time. Koch’s Flint Hills subsidiary has a refinery in Pine Bend, Minn. that has long processed large volumes of diluted bitumen from the Canadian oil sands. But the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said that Koch no longer has a pipeline leaving Canada; instead Koch takes oil sands crude off the Enbridge pipeline system in the United States and carries it through their own Minnesota Pipeline to the Flint Hills refinery, CAPP said.

Menotti says that Koch has built one or more upgraders, plants that partially refine the bitumen from the tar sands so that it can flow more easily through pipelines.

Where is Koch’s acreage and how does it fit into development in northern Alberta?

Most of Koch’s leases appear to be in the Peace River area, a good ways west of the current main developments in the Athabasca River area. The Peace River deposits are the smallest ones (there's another area called Cold Lake). Still, there's plenty of oil to be had there.

The Peace River area will be exploited using steam injection and not the big open pits that make up half the Athabasca development. What does that mean? It won't look nearly as bad. But it's still very energy intensive so development involves more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil. That is what first galvanized opposition from U.S. environmental groups. There is also uncertainty about whether contaminated steam and water leaks into underground aquifers or nearby streams.

Most of the leases owned by the Koch brothers use “in situ” oil extraction, Bayley said, which involves injecting a mix of chemicals and hot water to extract the bitumen. That sort of development can be damaging, she said.

“It involves fragmenting the landscape with roads, well pads and pipelines,” Bayley said.

In Alberta, oil sands production today runs around 2 million barrels a day and Alberta Energy says production could rise to 3.8 million barrels a day by 2022.

But little oil is being produced yet. Royal Dutch Shell has the most ambitious plan, to produce up to 80,000 barrels a day in the Peace River area. It received approval from the Alberta Energy Regulator in April 2013. First oil will flow around  mid-2017. Full production capacity is expected two years later.

Koch has plans too. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says that Koch filed an application in Feb. 2013 with the Alberta Energy Regulator to develop a steam assisted (known as SAGD in situ) project that would have two equal phases totaling 60,000 barrels a day. Pending approval, construction will start in the fourth quarter of 2016 and production would begin two years later.

Koch has sold acreage before. It put 347,000 acres up for sale in 2006 and it put 220,000 acres with 2.9 billion barrels of estimated “recoverable resource” up for sale in 2012. In addition, the provincial government ordered Koch and other companies to give up some leases so close to the heart of Fort McMurray that it was impeding expansion of the fast-growing town. Some combination of those might have contributed to IFG’s revision of the amount of acreage held by Koch.

 Koch Industries Web site has this brief description on its Canadian operations.