Alberta Premier Jason Kenney could not have predicted the drone strike that shut half of Saudi Arabia’s oil output when he planned his trip to New York this week. But the timing of the flare-up in the Middle East has helped make for a more receptive audience among investors, analysts and geopolitical experts to whom Mr. Kenney seeks to make the case for Alberta oil.
“Emphasized that Alberta is the most secure major source of energy on Earth,” Mr. Kenney tweeted on Monday after meeting with the editorial board of Bloomberg News in the U.S. financial capital. “The strike on Saudi refineries should be a wake-up call. The world needs more reliable, stable energy, and Alberta can provide it.”
While that argument is hardly a new one, it has just taken on renewed salience.
The battle for regional supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is in part being waged through a proxy war in Yemen, is no short-term conflict. As the world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia can offer neither the geopolitical stability nor the environmental rigour that Alberta can claim to provide in supplying hungry Chinese and Indian markets. While that has always been the case, the drone strike that hit Saudi Arabia’s largest refinery has raised the prospect of more frequent supply disruptions as Iran and its proxies lash out at their rival.
“We’ve seen some institutional investors rate the Alberta oil sands very low on their ESG [environmental, social and governance] matrix while they continue to finance the Saudi, Iranian and Russian oil industries,” Mr. Kenney told Bloomberg. “We’ll be challenging them to give us a great deal more credit for being the only stable liberal democracy among the largest oil producers in the world.”
The United States, a liberal democracy that has become the world’s biggest oil producer, would obviously beg to differ with Mr. Kenney’s latter assertion. But the Alberta Premier is correct to point out the double standard used by some investors, such as HSBC, which has deemed greenfield oil sands projects a “prohibited business,” but whose chief executive officer has expressed “excitement” about HSBC’s role in bankrolling the Saudi economy.
The bottlenecks faced by Alberta in getting its oil to tidewater remain a major stumbling block to restoring investor confidence in the oil sands. But if anything can drive home the point of the need for a new pipeline to tidewater, it is the opportunity cost Canada now faces as other producers, including the United States, step up to replace Saudi oil in some markets.
But U.S. shale oil production is expected to peak within the next decade. And the short lifecycle of a shale well means that producers need to drill hundreds of wells to generate the same output as a single oil sands project. That hardly makes U.S. shale environmentally superior.
Even so, producers in the oil sands need to put their money where their mouth is to prove they are serious about reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Suncor took a big step in that direction this month by announcing it would invest $1.4-billion to install two natural gas-fired co-generation units at its Oil Sands Plant Base, reducing GHG emissions by 25 per cent.
Far more ambitious investments are required to improve the environmental profile of the oil sands. That would in turn enhance the business and political case for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, and perhaps even for the revival of the Energy East project. It would also strengthen Mr. Kenney’s hand as he travels to Europe and Asia to boost his province’s oil.
Skeptics will continue to argue that the world is facing an oil glut. Demand remains essentially stagnant as the global economy stumbles toward a possible recession. Environmental policies in many countries, including Canada’s own carbon tax, are aimed at reducing oil demand much further in coming years. And Alberta remains a relatively high-cost producer.
But if the past few days have shown anything, it is that assumptions are often proved to be wrong. Circumstances change. And Mr. Kenney suddenly has a stronger case to make in the Big Apple.