The federal government’s decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion for a whopping $4.5 billion is shaping up to be a do-it-yourself disaster of epic proportions. Not only did Ottawa overpay Kinder Morgan for a stranded asset, they’ve saddled taxpayers with it indefinitely. Brace yourselves, Canada: We now own a money pit.
This isn’t some fixer-upper that can be easily flipped. No one is even sure when the project will be completed. For six long years, Kinder Morgan tried in vain to twin its existing pipeline between Edmonton and Burnaby, B.C. As Canada’s only oil pipeline to the west coast, its expansion should’ve been a no-brainer for the federal government. Instead, Ottawa dithered before giving it the green light.
For years, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has talked out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to the energy sector. Just last year he enraged Albertans by suggesting Canada “phase out” the oil sands. He later walked back those comments, but the damage was already done. He’s prioritized environmental posturing over pipelines from the get-go, and now Canadians are being cheated on this deal.
The total hit to taxpayers for effectively nationalizing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion isn’t yet known. The project’s $4.5-billion price tag doesn’t include future expenses for construction and labour. Even before Ottawa agreed to buy the pipeline, Kinder Morgan was already facing cost overruns. And let’s face it: Government-owned businesses aren’t exactly known for doing things on the cheap.
What is clear is that Kinder Morgan bested the federal government on this deal. RBC estimates the Houston-based infrastructure company will collect a total of $1.2 billion more than the value of the existing pipeline plus the money it has already spent on the project’s expansion.
If that isn’t enough to make your head spin, consider that the government isn’t even seeking to make a profit from its eventual sale. Even at a discount, unloading this project will be tough. Traditional buyers, including pension funds and other institutions, are allergic to political risk. There’s lingering opposition from British Columbia and some First Nations groups. Trudeau’s track record of flip-flopping on the energy file is also unsettling, especially for foreign investors.
Canadians should be outraged. Trudeau and his Liberal lieutenants have known for years that oil sands companies have to broaden their customer base beyond the United States. Less than 1% of Canadian oil is exported outside North America, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Without more pipelines and ports, oil sands companies cannot ship enough oil to overseas markets, such as China. That’s worrisome, because the United States is not just Canada’s main customer, but also our biggest competitor, thanks to the shale oil boom.
Canadian oil already trades at a discount. The spread between Western Canadian Select, the benchmark price for oil sands crude, and West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. reference price, has already cost our energy sector $12 billion in “forgone revenues” over the past five years, according to CIBC. The total shortfall could reach $15 billion by 2019.
The Canadians outside Alberta who think their own prosperity is not affected by the fortunes of the oil patch need a reality check. The energy sector accounts for about 7% of Canada’s nominal GDP, and energy stocks compose 20% of the S&P/ TSX Composite Index. Domestic bank stocks, which constitute 30% of the index, can also be knocked up or down by the price of oil.
There can’t be a green future without a profitable present. To improve the odds of finding a buyer for Trans Mountain, Ottawa must undertake a wholesale rewrite of its energy policy. It can start by reviving the Northern Gateway and Energy East pipeline projects. The political uncertainty looming over the oil patch makes Canada look like a basket case on the world stage, proving that common sense is not so common –especially in politics.