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Why Keystone XL might be Canadian oil's best route to China Add to ...

Oil exports have become the new byword for both Ottawa and the oil patch. But what if crude could move to Asia without building huge, expensive and controversial new pipelines to the West Coast?

What if, instead of feeding China through Northern Gateway, Canada sent oil across the Pacific through TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL line to Texas?

The idea of exporting Canadian crude through the U.S. is highly charged, especially if it involves Keystone XL, a pipe that has already dredged up all manner of protest.

But it could solve a lot of problems for Canadian oil traders and companies seeking other markets -- and it’s gaining currency among market observers, who say it’s a natural consequence of the extraordinary surge of light oil production in the U.S. Plays like the Bakken and the Eagleford are now pumping more than a million barrels a day of new crude into the U.S. system. The problem is, it’s light crude, and the markets it’s hitting -- in the Midwest, and the Gulf Coast -- don’t need or want it.

Instead, Midwestern refineries have spent billions to upgrade so they can process heavy oil sands crude. Refineries in the Gulf Coast, where Keystone XL would run, are already configured to run heavier crudes from Mexico and Venezuela.

Not only that, they just don’t have much of an appetite for light crude, which yields a lot of naphtha, a feedstock for petro-chemical plants. But those prefer to use ethane, a natural gas product that is far cheaper these days.

So, what to do with all that new light oil?

Sell it elsewhere.

Only, it’s not so easy. Exporting U.S. oil is tough, because it requires special permission. And moving it domestically, from the Gulf to the East Coast, for example, is hard because of Jones Act restrictions on foreign-flagged carriers moving between two U.S. ports.

Enter Canadian oil. So long as it’s not blended or mixed with a U.S. feedstock, Canadian crude is not hard to export, assuming the ships are booked and the port facilities built.

So refineries could use U.S. light crude, and then export the Canadian stuff (keeping in mind that a lot of oil sands output is actually processed into a light crude, so there are big quantities of it). There’s a natural market for it: petro-chemical facilities in Korea and Japan are largely configured to run off a naphtha-based feedstock. There’s a way to get there, with an expanded Panama Canal able to accommodate a size of ship that could serve Asia by 2014. And it may well be cheaper to ship crude to Texas than through a big pipe crossing difficult terrain to the B.C. coast.

“What does this imply for Gateway? That’s another story. What’s more important is this will ensure the Canadian crudes get onto the global stage,” Esa Ramasamy, editorial director of Americas oil market reporting with Platts, told a Calgary conference hosted by Platts this week.

It’s not likely going to start next week: Mr. Ramasamy can see exports firing up in 2015, after new pipelines like Keystone XL, and an expanded Seaway pipeline co-owned by Enbridge Inc., carry a wash of new oil to the Gulf.

But it’s clear that exports through the U.S. have been contemplated by pipeline companies. And it doesn’t have to be the Gulf Coast. Enbridge, for example, has been working on plans to bring Canadian crude to port at Portland, Maine. In a recent conversation with Streetwise, Stephen Wuori, Enbridge’s president of liquids pipelines, said his company believes it can export crude from the U.S. without consequence.

Asked if it would be possible to send oil to international markets from Maine, he said the answer is yes.

“There really is no crude export ban in the U.S., as is the popular notion,” he said. “It just hasn’t been done.”

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