A lot of issues in public policy are bafflingly complex. They are not, to use a five-dollar word beloved of academics, monocausal. They’re hard to understand, harder to explain and hardest to fix.
The massive discount between the Western Canadian crude-oil price and the benchmark world price, a gap that is lifting billions of dollars out of the pockets of Albertan and Canadian taxpayers, and out of the Canadian economy, is not one of those issues.
Hard to understand? Try easy to picture: Alberta is producing far more oil than the existing pipeline network can carry to markets beyond Alberta. Without enough pipe, it’s impossible to move that oil efficiently and cheaply, or at all.
Hard to explain? Not really. A glut of oil, trapped in Alberta due to the lack of pipeline capacity, has led to a precipitous fall in the price of Canadian crude. It’s the market in action, or in this case, a broken market in action. On Thursday, the Western Canadian Select benchmark dipped below US$14, while the North American benchmark, West Texas Intermediate, traded above US$56.
Hard to fix? No. It’s simple. To address the lack of pipelines, build more pipelines.
That’s exactly what Canada’s oil patch has been trying to do for the better part of a decade. The need for rising oil production to be met by increasing pipeline construction has been the industry’s constant refrain. This is not a case of the industry failing to plan; the industry has, for years, had plans for the needed pipelines, right down to the blueprints.
But the oil industry has been left idling, looking to Ottawa and waiting for a regulatory green light that won’t abruptly flash amber or turn red.
Some holdups are beyond Ottawa’s control, such as when the Barack Obama administration in Washington blocked the Keystone XL pipeline for political reasons. It has since been approved by U.S. President Donald Trump, though it’s once again delayed by reviews in lower U.S. courts.
Most of this mess, however, is of Canada’s own creation. This is a self-inflicted wound.
And ultimate responsibility rests with Ottawa. More importantly, regardless of how you score the blame game, Ottawa is the only one that can fix this situation. Ottawa can’t control global oil prices or decisions made by other countries. But the federal government, and only the federal government, can decide the fate of major infrastructure projects crossing provincial boundaries.
The Trudeau government did not create this fiasco all by itself. It inherited a stalled regulatory process. But it also contributed to the problem, notably by killing Northern Gateway, a pipeline to the Pacific coast that had received conditional approval from the National Energy Board. The plan was for the slack to be taken up by federal go-ahead for expansion of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline.
But Trans Mountain spent so much time in limbo that its owner, Kinder Morgan, lost interest in waiting and sold it to Ottawa. And then the courts said the previous years of environmental review and Indigenous consultation had been deficient, which has again shifted the project into park. It’s not clear what Ottawa’s timeline is for jumping through the regulatory and legal hoops, and getting construction started.
In the meantime, the financial bloodletting goes on. It’s especially painful for the Alberta economy and the province’s treasury, but it’s hurting all Canadians.
The investment firm Peters & Co. Ltd. estimates that if the gap between Canadian and American benchmark oil prices remains at US$40 next year, it will cost the Alberta treasury $5-billion in revenue, and the province $50-billion in economic activity. That will slow the entire country’s growth.
Last month, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley described Canadian oil exported at bargain-basement prices as “money being taken out of the Canadian economy and sucked into American bank accounts.” That’s about the shape of it. Canada is running a permanent Black Friday sale.
Desperate measures are being considered, with several oil companies this week asking Ms. Notley to issue an order temporarily forcing all producers in the province to lower their output, to try to raise prices. It’s an absurd and unsatisfactory solution to an absurd and unsatisfactory situation.
The only long-term solution is for more pipeline capacity to come on-stream. And the one big missing piece is the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Your move, Ottawa.