Canada is living an energy nightmare.
Its major oil producers have been expanding capacity for years under the assumption they are operating in a sophisticated country equipped with the regulatory framework and political maturity required to build a major export pipeline of great national interest in under, say, two decades.
But that assumption has proven invalid, and so now there’s a glut of crude in Alberta that is selling at a discount of more than US$30 per barrel compared to the price for U.S. crude, which has easy access to markets. At times the discount has hit US$50, a previously unheard of gap between Canadian and North American prices. The Western Canada Select benchmark price slumped below US$13 this month, the lowest in a decade, while the U.S. benchmark remained above US$50.
Artificially low prices for Canadian crude are costing producers as much as $100-million a day in lost revenue, according to one frustrated oil company CEO. That figure might be high, but the damage is no less real for being estimated more conservatively. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says the loss to the Canadian economy stands at $80-million a day. Choose your poison.
The main reason for this disastrous situation is the lack of pipeline capacity – capacity that has been repeatedly promised by federal governments of various stripes, but has not been delivered. The pressure to find an alternate solution is growing faster than the pressure inside the storage tanks holding all that unsellable Alberta heavy crude.
Which explains why, last week, the Trudeau government said it would consider a proposal from Alberta to buy rail cars to ship the province’s landlocked surplus to export.
The cars would come online next summer and run for three years, at a total cost of $2.6-billion. They would move 120,000 barrels a day; the two governments would recoup as much as $2-billion by charging oil companies for the service.
It’s come to this, has it? After waking up one day to find themselves the owners of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which Ottawa purchased this year for $4.5-billion from an exasperated Kinder Morgan, now Canadians might become the owner/operators of an oil-by-rail concern? Why don’t we just nationalize the whole industry and get it over with?
Canada’s pipeline follies continue to be such a disheartening spectacle. Putting taxpayers on the hook for the latest round of desperate measures is not ideal, though we can’t blame the Alberta government for seeking immediate solutions. Voters there want something – anything – done about a set of circumstances that is shortchanging oil companies, workers and the economy.
There is a useful irony in the rail idea, though. The major issue that opponents of pipelines overlook is that Alberta oil is going to move one way or another. If it can’t travel down a pipe, then it will be loaded onto trucks and train cars.
This is not theoretical. The National Energy Board reported last week that crude-by-rail exports from Canada rose to a record 269,829 barrels per day in September – double what it was a year ago. A cheaper and far safer alternative – the Trans Mountain expansion – sits unbuilt while oil still finds its way to markets on rail lines that intersect the main streets of Canadian cities and towns.
But is there a global oil scarcity because some Canadian crude is landlocked and Alberta is suffering? No. Is the lack of Trans Mountain expansion reducing the amount of driving people are doing in Vancouver? Or in Asia? No. Does the fact the Energy East pipeline was never built mean that people in Atlantic Canada and Quebec have no gasoline for their cars?
Nope. Oil simply arrives in the East in tankers from Africa, the United States and the Middle East, including the bone-sawing regime in Saudi Arabia.
There is a good chance Alberta oil will get a break in the new year. OPEC is likely to announce a cut in production in December. Other countries, including the United States, have already started reducing output. Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement project, which upgrades an existing pipe to the United States, could come onstream late in 2019. All of that will help.
But there will still be a significant gap between Canadian oil output and oil export capacity – the source of the price discount. The only solution is for Ottawa to focus on getting the Trans Mountain expansion approved in the shortest time possible. Just get it done.