On Thursday, the joint National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Act review panel approved Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, subject to 209 conditions. As UBC's George Hoberg points out, this does not represent a green light for the pipeline as it still needs both cabinet approval and must weather the almost-certain First Nations Court challenges.
In addition to those who oppose Northern Gateway for environmental or other reasons, the decision on Northern Gateway has brought to the forefront those who oppose pipelines on protectionist grounds, or at least purport to do so. Among those making the arguments for export bans on raw bitumen today included Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour. Similar arguments have been made against the Keystone XL pipeline by Thomas Mulcair and the federal NDP, although NDP opposition to Northern Gateway is more rooted in environmental concerns than trade issues.
These objections seem to be grouped into three camps – let's call them value-adders, back-door-taxers, and energy-securers. The value-adders feel that, if we restricted the exports of raw bitumen, we'd capture more of the value from the resource by selling more refined products and create jobs along the way. The back-door-taxers, I believe, are more concerned with slowing down activity in the oil sands, and calling for more refining imposes a tax on oil sands production, which would have that effect indirectly. The energy-securers are concerned that, as a result of our trade relationships, we will end up physically short on energy, or at least short on refined products, during a future global oil crisis.
The value-adders see Canada as losing on the deal in which we ship diluted bitumen at prices of $70-80 per barrel while light oil trades at $100-110 per barrel and refined products like gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel trade at higher prices still. They argue that, if only we could get these higher prices for our resources, we'd be better off. They're conveniently enabled in their view by the perception that the costs of refining, translated into economic impacts, are actually benefits.
While it's certainly true that refiners have done very well due to the recent crude discounts in North America, it's not been a money-making venture for the most part – refinery margins are generally in the $5-10 per barrel range. Margins are, of course, higher on refining heavier products like oil sands bitumen, but the costs are higher too. North American refined product consumption is dropping, and is expected to continue to do so, so new Canadian refiners would have to compete in the world market. With new, large-scale refineries being built in India and China at a fraction of what it costs to build them in Canada, the only way this would be possible is through offering them a discounted feedstock. As Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour put it to me on Twitter, "low-cost feedstock (bitumen) could be our competitive advantage." Of course, that's not a true adding of value, since the discounted bitumen would come at a cost to taxes, royalties, and producer profits.
The back-door-taxers (I suspect Ms. May is among them) see a demand for more refining as a way to slow oil sands growth and the related environmental costs. It's certainly true, if you believe that labour and capital limit oil sands development, that the same investment in oil sands extraction and refining would yield lower total GHG emissions, lower water use, and likely lower total surface impacts. Incidentally, this puts the back-door taxers at odds with the value-adders who believe that we would see incremental activity through requiring refining. It's doubtful that the energy-securers would be any happier if we were shipping diesel to Asia via B.C. and still importing oil on the East coast.
The back-door-tax would work, since it would require much larger up-front capital to build an integrated extraction and refining facility, or would give market power to those with domestic refineries in place. Either way, you'd make oil sands investments less attractive by placing riders on them. I don't believe many back-door-taxers actually want to see more refineries in Canada – in this respect, they are a little bit like the oil industry pleading for a carbon tax whenever one is not on the table.
Finally, the energy-securers are concerned that Canada is exporting oil from the west while remaining dependent on imported oil and/or refined product on the east coast. They're right – that is what's happening. In the first half of 2013, Canada exported about 2.5 million barrels per day of oil and imported 650,000 barrels per day. That happens because, for most of the last 30 years, it was a money-making proposition – we were able to export oil to Chicago and receive more for it there than it cost to buy an equivalent barrel of oil on the east coast. Shipping oil west to east would have been a money-losing venture, and those costs would have been borne by some combination of western producers and eastern consumers. The threat of another oil shock wasn't enough to justify the increased cost.
The energy-securers would like to see our oil imports eliminated, and they very likely will be with TransCanada's Energy East pipeline and/or Enbridge's Line 9b reversal, both of which would bring more Canadian oil to Eastern Canada. The energy-securers are, with respect to these two projects, in agreement with the value-adders, since the latter see the potential for increasing refinery activity in Eastern Canada. The back-door-taxers are likely not too thrilled, as this is not likely to increase cost pressure on the oil sands and might even increase support for the industry nationally.
Today, what's clear is that the value-adders, the back-door taxers, and the energy-securers are all in agreement on two things: Somehow, we'd all be better off if we sold our oil sands resources more cheaply (preferably to Canadians) and that Northern Gateway is a bad idea.
Andrew Leach is the Enbridge Professorship at the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta and is also an Enbridge shareholder. You can get more details on both here. He is on Twitter @andrew_leach.