Canadian crude producers are being cushioned from falling global prices by a drop in the loonie and narrower discounts for heavy oil shipped to key U.S. markets.
Brent crude, the global benchmark, has fallen about 15 per cent over the past 30 days, and U.S. West Texas intermediate has also tumbled sharply. But in Canada, the average price in Canadian dollars received by producers was actually slightly higher in the past month than over the previous 4 1/2 years, Toronto-Dominion Bank economist Leslie Preston said in a report Monday.
The reason is tied to favourable moves in the currency market, along with a reduced discount for Canadian heavy oil against WTI as more Alberta oil finds its way to U.S. refineries in need of heavy crude.
"It is a bit like the cleanest dirty shirt," Ms. Preston said in an interview. "The reality is we are better off now because we were worse off two years ago, when we were in the worst phase of discounting and the Canadian dollar was at parity."
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that a 1-cent decline in the Canadian dollar would be equivalent to a $1-per-barrel rise in the oil price. Since the June peak, the benchmark Canadian heavy Western Canada Select has dropped $12 (U.S.) a barrel, but the loonie has fallen 5 cents against the greenback, cancelling out nearly half the crude price drop.
"It has been partially mitigated but it has not offset the total decline that is out there," CAPP vice-president Greg Stringham said. Heavy oil accounts for nearly 70 per cent of Canada's exports so far this year, and like all Canadian production, it is priced in relation to the leading U.S. benchmark, WTI.
Oil prices continued to sink Monday. WTI fell to $77.40 (U.S.) a barrel, down $1.25 on the day and off nearly $30 since its peak in June. The leading international benchmark, Brent, fell more than $1 to $82.34, and has fallen $33 since June.
Canadian heavy oil producers have seen their prices improve relative to WTI, thanks to the expansion of rail and pipeline capacity out of Alberta, and the commission of a heavy-oil processing unit at BP PLC's Whiting refinery in Indiana.
There has been surging demand for Canada's extra-thick crude on the U.S. Gulf Coast, home to the world's largest refining complex, said Jackie Forrest, vice-president of energy research at ARC Financial Corp. in Calgary. The region has capacity to soak up as much as 2.7 million barrels a day of heavy oil, Ms. Forrest said.
But consumption has been held back, averaging just 1.8 million b/d so far this year, amid a pullback in deliveries from traditional suppliers in Venezuela and Mexico, and protracted delays building pipelines such as TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL.
"So that gap is the opportunity for Canada, because that's actually refineries that would prefer to take heavy crude that just can't get it," Ms. Forrest said. "That's translated into stronger prices back here in Western Canada as well for heavy crudes compared to light crudes."
Discounts for Western Canada Select, the key oil sands benchmark, have shrunk to an average of about $19 (U.S.) this year from roughly $24 a year ago, for example.
Prices are expected to more closely track the U.S. benchmark as more production heads south from Alberta through expanded rail networks and new pipeline connections. "There's still a very big market for Canadian heavy crude in the Gulf Coast despite the growth of tight oil," she said, referring to the boom in unconventional light oil production in the United States.
Ms. Preston, the TD economist, said lower prices won't stall Canadian production growth until later this decade because supply coming on stream now was planned several years ago. "We still expect over the next couple of years production to grow year over year by 5 to 6 per cent … but I would expect to see a hit to corporate profits and government revenues over the next couple quarters."
While some companies have shelved high-cost projects, those decision were taken prior to the slump in prices and had more to do with market access, cost inflation and a renewed emphasis on high-return projects rather than growth for growth's sake.
The cash crunch is more likely to impede production from unconventional tight oil plays, like Alberta's Duvernay, where the investment cycle is shorter, than in the long-lead-time, capital-intensive oil sands projects.