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Alberta Notley’s oil refinery pitch met with industry skepticism

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s call for new oil refineries is unlikely to persuade an industry that is already skeptical about such projects, according to energy experts who say the current slump in crude prices doesn’t make the idea any more attractive.

A number of refinery projects have been proposed over the past decade, many of them on B.C.’s Pacific coast. While they have been championed by local leaders who have said the refineries would create jobs and squeeze more revenue out of persistently low Canadian oil prices, only one project has been built in a generation.

Earlier this week, Ms. Notley sought to capitalize on the current price of Canadian oil, which has been trading at near-record low prices in recent weeks, and asked energy companies to put forward proposals to build new refineries in her energy-rich province. None of the major energy companies based in Calgary have yet to show interest, according to energy experts.

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Jean-Sébastien Rioux, a professor at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, says North America is awash with refined oil and proposed Canadian refineries have had multibillion-dollar budgets and would be far from potential customers. New refineries, if they were built in Alberta as Ms. Notley has asked, would also need new pipelines.

Despite the obstacles, the prospect of a new refinery holds broad appeal because it would allow for more profit from Canadian oil by selling an upgraded product at a premium, rather than the discount currently applied to raw bitumen.

“Let’s start making more of the product that the world needs right here at home,” Ms. Notley told reporters in Edmonton on Tuesday. While she didn’t announce any firm government funding for a potential project, the Premier said a new refinery would need to satisfy both a company’s bottom line and Alberta’s taxpayers.

“The project must make sense for Alberta. It must have a return on investment for Albertans and it must diversify the way we use the energy resources that we as Albertans all own. We need to see jobs for Albertans,” Ms. Notley said.

While the Alberta government is looking for expressions of interest over the next two months from companies willing to build or expand a refinery, Prof. Rioux said its unlikely any energy company would look at the current price of oil as a deciding factor in what could be a decade-long megaproject.

“All these big companies in downtown Calgary haven’t built a new refinery in decades," he said. "It just isn’t worth the investment for them. The whole thing is a huge hill to climb. It’s hard to comprehend who would stick their necks out in the current environment.”

The challenges facing a new refinery are substantial.

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Construction wrapped up on the North West refinery near Edmonton earlier this year. The first refinery to be built in Canada in nearly 35 years, the nearly $10-billion project was behind schedule, over budget and required substantial government aid to start production. Criticized as a boondoggle, the refinery’s business case is focused on producing diesel for domestic use in a roaring Alberta economy. The projected demand is largely absent in a province expected to teeter on the edge of recession in 2019.

“We don’t really need more diesel, at least in the near term, or even the longer term, with projections of economic growth not being as robust as before," said economist Jackie Forrest of ARC Financial Research Institute. "Normally, economic growth and diesel growth follow each other.”

With North America currently producing enough refined product to meet the continent’s demand, Canada is already a net exporter of gasoline. Any new refinery would need to compete with an existing refinery somewhere in Asia, closer to where Canada would look to sell its product.

A 2017 report from the IHS Markit global energy consultancy looked at a number of potential sites around the world where a heavy-oil refinery could be built. It concluded that one in the Edmonton area would be the most expensive to build and operate. A refinery in Southern China would cost nearly half as much.

“Asia remains the most attractive region in which to build a new refinery," the report concluded. "Asia benefits from lower labour (and thus, capital) costs than other cases. Assuming oil sands are able to access Asia in meaningful quantities, investment in new heavy-oil refineries can be economic.”

Despite the challenging economics, Alberta’s governing New Democrats and the province’s labour representatives point to the creation of jobs as a reason to support new refineries. Terry Parker, the executive director of the Building Trades of Alberta, said that construction workers need a large project, such as a new refinery, to find work in a struggling provincial economy.

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“We need to refine it where we mine it … we have far too many unemployed skilled construction workers out of work right now,” said Mr. Parker, who represents 16 Alberta trade unions.

The argument that refining would add value to Canada’s oil exports often misses the real challenge of making more gasoline in Canada, according to Prof. Rioux. He likens it to a similar argument that the country should not export raw wheat, but should instead sell bread to other countries.

“You have to figure out what kind of bread to make: Do people want wheat, whole-grain, croissants or baguettes? Let’s say they want baguettes. Then you need to find a market for a million Canadian-made baguettes. That’s a real challenge,” he said.

Similarly, selling a refined product such as gasoline to a foreign country requires a Canadian refinery to make the right product, with the right level of octane at a foreign local standard, at the right time. The difficulty of striking that balance is why most large cities have nearby refineries that supply their market.

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