For months, much of the focus on Alberta’s oil-price woes has centred on Western Canadian Select.
That’s understandable because heavy oil accounts for about half of Canada’s crude production, and WCS is the heavy-oil benchmark. Earlier this month, it plunged to a record low of less than US$14 a barrel, and currently sits around US$19.
But what about the other half of production? The situation is likewise grim.
Two lighter oil benchmarks, used in pricing about 40 per cent of Canada’s crude production, have dropped precipitously over the past three months to less than US$30 a barrel. Those benchmarks – Edmonton Mixed Sweet and Synthetic Crude – now sell at steep discounts to U.S. crude, a sign that no corner of Alberta’s oil industry is untouched by pricing challenges.
Discounts for WCS are standard, owing in part to costs associated with moving and refining Canada’s heavy crude. Over the past decade, WCS has sold for an average of US$17 cheaper than West Texas intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, on a per-barrel basis. This fall, the differential ballooned to a record of around US$50.
Differentials are slimmer for Edmonton Mixed Sweet and Synthetic Crude, and the latter has often sold for a premium to WTI. Both are lighter grades than WCS and cheaper to refine.
But over recent weeks, unprecedented price gaps have opened up, despite those grades having “comparable quality profiles” to WTI, as a recent TD Economics report put it.
Prior to the latest downturn, the largest differential for Synthetic Crude was US$23 a barrel, according to Bloomberg data going back to 2006; on Nov. 1, it was a record US$34 cheaper.
Before 2018, the average price gap for Edmonton Mixed Sweet was about US$4 a barrel, in Bloomberg data going back to mid-2014. It hit a record discount of US$39 this month.
Canada’s lighter grades are getting slammed by the same forces affecting heavy crude – namely, a pipeline bottleneck that’s made it tougher to ship product, along with refinery outages during maintenance season in the U.S. Midwest. As a result, an increasing amount of crude is being transported by rail and truck. Some executives in the oil patch have also called on the Alberta government to intervene and impose production cuts, aimed at bolstering prices.
Fortunately, some of the factors weighing on Canadian crude are temporary, and price differentials should continue to improve, TD said on Friday. For one, the group notes that refinery operations are getting back to normal.
Lighter grades “should see a speedier normalization pattern” next year, TD economists Omar Abdelrahman and Brian DePratto wrote, noting they “are generally easier to flow through pipelines” than heavy crude and “have lower transportation costs.”
“Historically, WCS spreads have been far more volatile and are far more likely to surge than those of synthetic or light crudes, implying that its normalization path should be subject to more risk than the two lighter oil benchmarks.”