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Economic Insight With Keystone in play, oil may be spared from any U.S.-Canada trade spat

The revival of the Keystone XL pipeline is boosting Canadian oil patch hopes for a friendly relationship with the Trump administration.

Alex Panetta/THE CANADIAN PRESS

For weeks, Canadian energy looked headed for a beating in the Donald Trump era. Now, the positives for the hard-hit industry seem to be piling up.

Before The Donald was sworn in as President, there was angst in downtown Calgary about the potential for Canadian oil and gas to be taxed heavily at the border as part of an anti-trade wave. That could still happen; attempting to apply traditional logic to predicting what this administration will do is a fool's game.

If anything, though, the Canada-U.S. energy relationship actually looks like it's becoming closer, even with the two-decade-old North American free-trade agreement hanging by a thread. The timing is opportune for the sector, as it slowly emerges from the oil-price collapse.

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Read more: Canadian oil patch cheers Keystone XL revival

Read more: Trudeau welcomes Trump's Keystone pipeline revival

Read more: Why do we need Keystone XL anyway?

Exhibit A is Mr. Trump's executive order putting TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL oil pipeline back into play. The President said that terms and conditions of the project will have to be renegotiated, and there's no indication yet what that will cost the company and its customers. Mr. Trump appears to be insisting on U.S. steel for any and all pipelines, whether that's possible is not yet known. At home, we've seen how a government can extract more from a pipeline proponent, after B.C. Premier Christy Clark struck a deal with Kinder Morgan Canada to collect as much as $1-billion over 20 years if the company builds its Trans Mountain expansion.

It's unclear how oil flowing in a new pipeline, Keystone XL, could get slapped with more onerous treatment than the millions of barrels that already get shipped to the United States on existing lines, such as the initial Keystone conduit and several operated by Enbridge Inc. This, one assumes, will be in the fine print.

On the surface, Keystone XL is closer to construction than it's ever been. In the seven years that the application languished under the Obama administration, it faced rising opposition amid a successful play among environmental leaders to make it a crucible in the fight against climate change. This, when then-president Barack Obama wanted to build a legacy of big and meaningful moves on that front and did not want to be remembered as a pushover to industry. Protest will flare up again, reopening old wounds in Nebraska and elsewhere, but the current commander-in-chief has said that he has little time for such things or sympathy for those who care about them.

There are other signs that bode well for Canada's oil sector. Yes, the resurrection of Keystone XL comes amid predictions that U.S. light oil from shale formations in North Dakota and Texas is poised to surge again as crude prices improve and regulations are relaxed. That raises fear that Canadian oil will get squeezed out of its most important market.

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But the fact is that the United States will still require imported crude, especially as Mr. Trump proceeds with his America First Energy Plan, which prescribes cutting supplies from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. It puts even more emphasis on its largest foreign supplier, Canada.

In addition, U.S. Gulf Coast refineries that Keystone XL will feed are designed to run heavy crude, such as Alberta's, as opposed to the light-grade oil from the shale formations.

One other development Canadian oil barons are enthusiastic about is the appointment of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Mr. Tillerson has more detailed knowledge about Alberta's oil industry than many Albertans, having spent billions of dollars in the province as chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil.

The company and its domestic affiliate, Imperial Oil Ltd., have developed the Kearl and Cold Lake oil sands projects and have a major stake in the Syncrude Canada plant. Meanwhile, the bitumen from Kearl and the others feeds into Exxon Mobil refineries in the United States. Mr. Trump invited TransCanada to resubmit its application and Mr. Tillerson will have 60 days to make a decision on the project. Given the Republicans staunch support for Keystone during the Obama years, a rejection is highly unlikely. There are other major segments of the Canadian economy with justifiable concern about trade under Mr. Trump, such as automotives and other manufacturing.

For now though, oil looks to be keeping friction to a minimum.

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