American refineries swallowed up cheap and abundant Canadian oil last year, helping to push crude exports to the United States from north of the border to a record level.
The displacement of energy imports from other oil-producing countries, the addition of new pipeline capacity and more U.S. refinery space for the heavy oils that are the bread and butter of Western Canada are all factors that helped cement Canada's position as the top foreign oil-supplier to the United States.
In 2015, four out of every 10 barrels of oil imported by the United States were from Canada, said a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration on Tuesday. Even with the oil price drop, there is now increasing output from the oil sands as major projects already in the works come on stream.
Canada sent a record 3.2 million barrels a day of gross crude oil exports to the United States last year, up 10 per cent from 2014.
The EIA report also touched on Canada's limited bargaining power when it comes to the price for its product – already discounted compared with the North American benchmark crude because of its heavy composition and long distances from key refineries. It noted that Canada has few alternative "outlets" for its heavy crude.
"A lot of the discount for Western Canadian Select pricing has to do with [Canada's] limited transportation options," said Hannah Breul, petroleum markets analysis team lead for the EIA.
"Because it's a relatively landlocked crude, it's dependent on pipeline takeaway capacity, augmented by rail – which makes the U.S. market the natural destination for it, at this point."
U.S. energy imports have dropped over the past decade. Technological advancements in the areas of horizontal drilling and fracking, mean that U.S. oil and natural gas producers can tap previously unreachable resources. The EIA said U.S. gross crude oil imports from all sources averaged 7.4 million barrels a day in 2015, down 27 per cent from the 2005 high of 10.1 million b/d.
But even as the U.S. increasingly relies on domestic supplies to meet its energy needs, its demand for Canadian oil remains healthy.
Keystone XL was rejected by the U.S. government late last year. But oil exports to the U.S. have been aided by the recent startup or expansion of other pipelines.
Judith Dwarkin, chief economist at RS Energy Group in Calgary, said growing volumes of light, sweet crude from the U.S. shales have displaced light, sweet foreign exports from OPEC, increasing the significance of Canada's heavy oil when U.S. imports are tabulated.
The EIA said Canada generally produces heavy crude oil that is well matched to processing capacity in the U.S. Ms. Dwarkin added that the Gulf Coast takes some of Canada's heavy crude, and there are limited but growing volumes of Canadian oil transported to the U.S. West Coast by rail.
But the U.S. Midwest district remains the largest and most "natural" market for Canadian oil exports, she said. It's the closest region to Canada's oil resources, the refineries are set up to get the best value from processing heavy crude "and the heavy crude has been priced right to beat off any potential competitors."
The EIA report also said Canada receives nearly all U.S. crude oil exports, making up 422,000 b/d, or 92 per cent, of the 458,000 b/d of crude oil exported from the United States in 2015. However, with U.S. lawmakers lifting a 40-year-old ban on most oil exports in December, that figure could be set to change as early as this year.