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Oil, steam and natural gas pipelines run through the forest at the Cenovus Foster Creek SAGD oil sands operations near Cold Lake, Alberta in this July 9, 2012 file photo.

TODD KOROL/REUTERS

Consider the tale of Suncor Energy Inc. and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., two of the largest oil sands producers in Alberta. Outwardly, they may appear quite similar. Each produces hundreds of thousands of barrels a day from the oil sands. And most of that oil eventually ends up in the same place–gas tanks across the continent. The path it takes to get there, however, is another story. The difference is a microcosm of the predicament Canada's energy industry currently faces.

Over the last few years, Suncor's emphasis has shifted from exponential production growth to milking the full value of what it digs out of the ground. Fortunately for Suncor, it processes nearly all of the bitumen it pulls from the oil sands in its own refineries.

On the other hand, CNRL, like most oil sands producers, exports raw bitumen to the United States. In so doing, however, the company also transfers an enormous amount of wealth from its Canadian operations to American refiners in the Midwest.

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In the refining business, the difference between what a refinery pays for its inputs (like crude or bitumen) and the price it gets for finished products (like gasoline or diesel) is known as a crack spread. The glut of oil coming from Canadian producers means Midwest refineries are enjoying crack spreads up to five times larger than those seen by American coastal refineries, which pay world prices for their feedstock.

Investors have certainly noticed what such large crack spreads mean for the bottom line. CNRL, which lacks its own refineries, is forced to sell its raw product at a heavy discount, thereby missing out on those juicy refining margins. Suncor, on the other hand, is able to capture the huge crack spreads through its downstream refining operations. In 2012, CNRL's stock fell more than 20 per cent, while Suncor's gained more than 10 per cent.

The issue is writ large in the price differential between West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent crude. Although WTI is often quoted in North America as the price of oil, Brent is actually the global benchmark for crude. Unfortunately for Canadian producers, lately the spot price of Brent has been as much as $25 a barrel higher than that of WTI.

While Canadian oil sands producers are the main victims of this price gap, they're also, somewhat ironically, its principal cause. Without more pipeline infrastructure to offload oil to other markets, oil sands crude, as well as shale oil from the Bakken play in North Dakota, has no where else to go. More production from these places only boosts supply, further lowering the price of WTI.

Aside from a few hundred thousand barrels a day from wells offshore Newfoundland that get Brent prices, virtually all of Canada's 2.4 million barrels a day are priced off WTI.

An even bigger concern for Canadian oil producers than the discount between WTI and Brent is the price differential between WTI and Western Canadian Select–the benchmark price for western Canadian oil exports to the U.S. It's trading around $60 a barrel, a third less than WTI and 45 per cent lower than Brent.

Do the math on some 2 million barrels a day of heavily discounted oil exports and suddenly you're talking about an enormous wealth transfer from Canadian oil producers to American refineries. (Note, the subsidy is pocketed by U.S. refiners, not motorists, who don't see the Canadian discount when filling up at the pumps.) What if Canadian oil was getting world prices? At the current Brent-Western Canadian Select spread of roughly $50 a barrel, you're in the neighbourhood of $100-million a day. That equates to foregone revenues of more than $35-billion over the course of a year.

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It's not just shareholders of companies like CNRL who are getting squeezed by this wealth transfer. The Alberta government loses royalties, while Ottawa (and the rest of Canada by extension) misses out on cash from corporate income taxes.

The rest of the oil sands industry may need to take a page from Suncor's playbook. Before rushing ahead to double oil sands production to 3 million barrels a day–and sending billions more in de facto energy subsidies to U.S. refiners–investors and the Canadian economy may be better off if producers figure out how to capture more value from what they're already digging out of the ground.

Jeff Rubin is the former chief economist of CIBC World Markets and the author of the award-winning Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller. His recent best seller is The End of Growth .

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