Canadian oil pouring into the United States on new pipeline connections is trickling onto global markets, dodging export snarls that threaten the energy industry's growth plans as crude prices slump.
More than two million barrels of mostly heavy oil from Canada's oil sands have been exported from the U.S. Gulf Coast since May last year, according to ClipperData, an industry firm that tracks crude oil tanker movements.
A Reuters report said BP PLC and Royal Dutch Shell PLC are the latest energy companies to take advantage of a quirk of U.S. law that allows for exports of Canadian oil as long as they aren't mingled with U.S. product.
Analysts have been anticipating a spike in such shipments for months, as more crude finds its way south on expanded and new pipeline routes from Alberta's landlocked oil sands.
Delays to multibillion-dollar export projects such as TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL and Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway have undercut Alberta oil production forecasts and led to steep price discounts on Canadian oil as fast-rising production backs up along existing networks.
But companies have managed to carve out pathways to global markets anyway. Suncor Energy Inc., for example, shipped a 700,000-barrel batch of heavy Alberta crude from Sorel-Tracy, Que., last September. It marked the first time the company had exported Western Canadian oil to Europe, where crude fetches higher prices compared to North America.
The global exports, although marginal today, "are going to ramp up over time," said Martin King, vice-president, institutional research at FirstEnergy Capital Corp. in Calgary.
"I think this is just part of this process of slowly expanding these Canadian exports to the rest of the world," he said. "If they can ship that stuff out and get something closer to international pricing, it captures at least a few bucks of upside per barrel, then they're going to do it."
Last week, two mid-sized oil tankers left from Freeport, Tex., bound for northwestern Europe, Reuters reported, citing ClipperData. BP shipped roughly 600,000 barrels of Canadian light, sour oil on April 10, the newswire said, while Shell loaded a tanker with about 523,000 barrels of Western Canada Select heavy blend on April 13, it said. Sour oil denotes higher sulphur content.
The cargoes followed similar shipments of the extra-thick crude made last year, totalling about 2.16 million barrels in five separate cargoes, according to ClipperData.
The prospect of increased Canadian crude exports from the U.S. Gulf Coast is a major sticking point in the debate over TransCanada's $8-billion (U.S.) Keystone XL project.
The Alberta-to-Texas pipeline has been delayed for years as opponents and supporters bicker over whether it would benefit U.S. refineries or simply bypass them, giving oil sands companies long-sought access to richer global markets. TransCanada insists the project would wean U.S. refineries from dwindling Latin American imports.
The most recent exports come after Enbridge began deliveries to the Gulf Coast via its Flanagan South pipeline, which started up in December.
The oil moves on Enbridge's mainline system from Alberta to Chicago. The pipeline then transports up to 600,000 barrels a day from the Chicago region to Cushing, Okla. From there, oil is transported on Enbridge's beefed-up Seaway pipeline system to the Gulf – as much as 850,000 barrels a day.
Enbridge in February said it was eyeing ways to further boost deliveries to the coastal refining hub, including possibly repurposing an existing natural gas pipeline between Patoka, Ill. and St. James, La. However, the company said discussions with shippers were ongoing and that it considered the scheme "conceptual" at this stage.