Atco Ltd. made several attempts to acquire AltaLink LP in the years before Berkshire Hathaway Energy's $3.2-billion winning bid, the chief executive officer of Alberta's largest transmission provider revealed in an interview Monday.
Atco has never said whether it competed against Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy in a process that culminated in the deal for AltaLink announced in May. Mr. Buffett's company struck the deal to acquire AltaLink from Quebec-based SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., but it still must be approved by the Alberta Utilities Commission.
In an interview on Monday, AltaLink chief executive Scott Thon said Atco had made several attempts in the past decade to buy his company – which transmits electricity to 85 per cent of Albertans. He suggested that Atco's push to stir debate about the sale – and the consequences of foreign ownership of critical infrastructure – isn't as altruistic at Atco chairwoman and chief executive Nancy Southern has made out. Mr. Thon said Atco has had a long-standing commercial interest in AltaLink.
"I can't tell you whether they bid on the current round of assets – only SNC Lavalin knows who bid," Mr. Thon said.
"But I can tell you they [Atco] have multiple times, over the last number of years – as recently as one year ago – made an offer to buy AltaLink."
If Atco had at any point acquired AltaLink, "they would have virtual 100-per-cent control of transmission in Alberta," he said. "There would be less competition if Atco had acquired AltaLink, and I think competition is good for consumers."
Ms. Southern was not available for comment on Monday.
With the regulatory hurdles to the deal still ahead, Atco last week acknowledged it had sponsored anonymous ads in metro newspapers urging the province and public to rethink "loss of control of our critical infrastructure" and the possibility of more power exports from Alberta. Ms. Southern has also said publicly that Albertans need more time to evaluate the deal and its implications, and has questioned the motivation of a "foreign entity."
With its campaign, it appears as Atco is trying to tap into genuine concerns regarding foreign ownership and Alberta's high power prices relative to other provinces. In the past decade, both provincial opposition parties and members of the public have voiced suspicion that Alberta power consumers are paying the freight for transmission grids designed to export power to U.S. buyers – and increase profits for power companies.
AltaLink maintains that there will be no day-to-day change in its Alberta-based operations, that ownership of transmission assets has no effect on the import or export of electricity, and those types of decisions are made by the province's Alberta Electric System Operator in any event. Also, Alberta has been a net importer of electricity for more than a decade. And rather than squeezing dividend payments out of its energy arm, Mr. Thon argues that Mr. Buffett's style has always been to grow the long-term value of his assets.
Mr. Thon said he was "shocked and disappointed" by the anonymous ads from Atco, which he said were designed "to incite the public to do something that really is based on misinformation."
The talk of the issue continues in Calgary even during a busy Stampede week for corporate Calgary. On Wednesday, the Calgary Chamber is hosting a private meeting for its members as part of a regular series on energy futures. Edmonton-born Greg Abel, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, will be holding court.
For its part, Mr. Thon said AltaLink is not going to back down from making its position known. The company doesn't specify how it will get the message out, but promises it won't be through anonymous ads.
"We've always been very transparent on the sale. It's a great thing for AltaLink, it's a great thing for our employees, and it's a great thing for Albertans," Mr. Thon said.