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Pacific Future Energy is studying transporting crude by rail to Prince Rupert, though a pipeline is possible if conditions change to allow Enbridge Inc. or TransCanada Corp. to build a line from Alberta to northwestern B.C.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

A fledgling B.C. bitumen refinery project makes economic sense even in a world of low oil prices, says a consultant to Pacific Future Energy.

The Vancouver-based upstart, which wants to refine Alberta oil and ship it to Asia, expects the cost of bitumen supplies from the oil sands will be sharply lower than the revenue from exporting refined petroleum products, said Ron Loborec, Canadian energy leader at Deloitte & Touche LLP.

"This oil refinery will be profitable. Diesel will be the highlight and it is highly sought after," he said in an interview after returning from a recent trip to Asia with Pacific Future Energy officials, who are seeking overseas investors to help kick-start the ambitious project to be located near Prince Rupert.

Prices for benchmark Western Canadian Select heavy oil are lower than those for West Texas intermediate light crude, so that provides a further cushion for the planned B.C. refinery to have cheaper costs for supplies, Mr. Loborec said.

Plans for the $11.4-billion (U.S.) refinery project feature the latest in technology, including carbon capture and storage. The result would be low emissions in the refining process to produce 216,000 barrels a day of petroleum products such as diesel, gasoline, propane and jet fuel. Most of the output would be exported to customers in Asia. Pacific Future Energy wants to take advantage of the price spread between heavy oil and refined products, believing it can operate efficiently amid either high or low oil prices.

Mr. Loborec joined two of Pacific Future Energy's leaders, Stockwell Day and Robert Delamar, on the Asian tour earlier this month. Mr. Day, a former federal international trade minister, is Pacific Future Energy's senior adviser, while Mr. Delamar serves as the company's chief executive officer.

Pacific Future Energy is studying transporting crude by rail to Prince Rupert, though a pipeline is possible if conditions change to allow Enbridge Inc. or TransCanada Corp. to build a line from Alberta to northwestern B.C., Mr. Loborec said.

In a 16-page slide presentation during the overseas trip, Pacific Future Energy devoted three pages to the hurdles faced by Enbridge's controversial Northern Gateway heavy oil pipeline proposal. "Why opposition to Enbridge: Lack of social licence," said the headline on one slide.

Northern Gateway's plan calls for loading unrefined heavy oil into tankers for export from Kitimat, raising worries about spills into Douglas Channel and the Pacific Ocean. By contrast, any spill of refined petroleum products would result in "significantly less environmental damage," according to the slide presentation.

While Northern Gateway has encountered difficulties in gaining social acceptance, the Enbridge-owned project has taken steps to address concerns from environmentalists and First Nations, Mr. Day said. "Northern Gateway has run into challenges, but I also give it credit for making progress," he said.

Northern Gateway has been striving to improve its relationships with First Nations and Métis groups in British Columbia. "Building more long-term, meaningful partnerships with these communities is our top priority right now. Northern Gateway will continue to listen, collaborate and build trust to ensure that aboriginal input and traditional knowledge is incorporated into the project," Northern Gateway spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht said in a statement.

Pacific Future Energy spokesman Mark Marissen said the refinery venture is in its early stages and it could take until 2023 for production to begin, assuming investors and commodity buyers are eventually secured.

Samer Salameh, the chairman of Pacific Future Energy, manages telecom and business development for Grupo Salinas, a Mexican conglomerate. "Our refinery will be built close to the water. Huge ships will deliver prefabricated modules and we will assemble them onshore. It will be like a huge Lego set," Mr. Salameh said in an interview.

Newspaper publisher David Black's rival Kitimat Clean oil refinery project has targeted its opening for 2022.

Industry analysts have expressed skepticism about the plans for Prince Rupert and Kitimat, cautioning that turning refinery dreams into reality won't be easy because tens of millions of dollars must be spent over a three-year engineering period before entering the multibillion-dollar construction stage lasting four or five years.