TransCanada Corp. has gone the makeover route – focusing its business on smaller, more manageable projects, and acquiring an American peer with natural gas pipelines already in the ground and the opportunity to build more.
But despite the corporate manoeuvrings that made up most of 2016, the end of the year saw TransCanada's story shift once again with the world-changing political victory of Donald Trump.
The U.S. president-elect's long-stated support for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline has suddenly made the project fresh again. And as the Calgary-based pipeline company heads into 2017, its proposed $8-billion (U.S.) pipeline project to ship more Canadian heavy oil to key U.S. markets is hogging the spotlight.
Deciphering what Mr. Trump will actually do in power is not easy, and Keystone XL is still far from a certainty. TransCanada's Russ Girling has shied away from making any public comments regarding his outlook on the project.
The only word came the week before Christmas when the company released a corporate video of the chief executive speaking about the year that was, and what is to come. In it, he said he believes his company's proposed large-volume crude-oil pipeline projects, Keystone XL and Energy East, "will have their day."
Environmental opposition and regulatory delays have bogged down the $15.7-billion cross-Canada Energy East pipeline that would ship diluted bitumen and other types of oil. And analysts have questioned the need for the 1.1 million barrels-per-day pipeline if Kinder Morgan Inc.'s approved expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline goes ahead, as well as Enbridge Inc.'s Line 3 replacement.
Mr. Girling mentioned Keystone XL by name, but not Energy East.
"If in fact we're so fortunate to obtain approvals on some of these longer-term projects, we think that will again enhance our ability to grow our dividend at a faster rate – and potentially extend it even beyond 2020," Mr. Girling said in the video.
The year saw TransCanada overhaul its priorities, which helped its stock price grow 39 per cent from the lows at the end of 2015.
"We changed our focus, and tacked away from things that we couldn't control – still good long-term options – to things that were closer to home, easier to permit, and closer to our right-of-ways," Mr. Girling also said, referring to a $25-billion near-term building plan that includes regional pipelines in Alberta, natural gas conduits in Mexico, and projects in the U.S. northeast it now controls thanks to its $11-billion (U.S.) acquisition of Houston-based Columbia Pipeline Group, Inc. and Columbia Pipeline Partners, LP.
But Mr. Trump's rise could reshape North America's energy sector, altering TransCanada's fortunes in the process.
In November, 2015, seven years after the pipeline was first proposed, U.S. President Barack Obama rejected Keystone XL, saying new infrastructure to support Canadian oil sands production didn't fit with his pledge to become a global leader in the battle on climate change.
Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is looking to appoint oil-industry boosters, and beneficiaries, to top posts – including Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive Rex Tillerson as the next U.S. secretary of state. Mr. Trump has indicated he will scrap Obama-directed climate-change policies, such as the Clean Power Plan. And he has said he will back the 800,000-barrels-per-day Keystone XL, provided TransCanada is willing to share the wealth. At one point he said he wants 25 per cent of the profits, "forever."
"What the hell difference does it make – it's a lot of jobs," Mr. Trump said of his support for the pipeline while campaigning in Iowa a year ago. "I like a lot of oil flow."
The revival of Keystone XL is generally viewed favourably by the Canadian oil industry, which would be happy to see any new pipeline built for more market access. Given opposition to oil pipelines in British Columbia's Lower Mainland, there is no guarantee that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will actually proceed.
Analysts have viewed Mr. Trump's ascension as a positive for TransCanada, with Royal Bank of Canada's Robert Kwan writing that Keystone XL still needs Nebraska state approval – which could take as long as a year – but "capital spending for the project could dovetail nicely with the completion of several other capital projects." BMO analyst Ben Pham has estimated an upside of $4 to $6 per share if the project goes ahead.
And it would help TransCanada with the $2.9-billion writedown it booked on the project this year.
"If the project were to proceed, some of that money spent – and written down – could be applied to the 'new' project," said TransCanada spokesman Mark Cooper, who noted pipeline equipment purchases, or easement costs, as examples.
However, the news is not all good for the Canadian oil and gas sector. There are concerns that Mr. Trump's strong support for expanding a homegrown industry, including relaxed climate-change policies – alongside the potential of massive new cheaper production from basins such as the Permian – could hurt the competitiveness of Canadian producers.
"Frankly, I'm not in love with the idea of taking Canadian oil," Mr. Trump has said.
According to Robert Thummel, portfolio manager at Kansas City-based Tortoise Capital Advisors, L.L.C. – a TransCanada investor – financial markets are paying closer attention to TransCanada's more immediate issues, such as the desire for a long-term agreement with natural gas shippers on the Canadian Mainline. And oil sands producers, he said, have already made long-term shipping plans assuming Keystone XL won't happen.
"Don't lose sight of the fact that oil prices have basically been cut in half since Keystone XL was commissioned," Mr. Thummel said.
"The environment is a little different now than it was a few years ago. I think for now, most shippers have moved on, beyond Keystone XL."
Mr. Thummel added there are still a series of unknowns about Mr. Trump's energy policies, and a key early test will be his decisions around the $3.8-billion (U.S.) Dakota Access project.
Mr. Trump has said he supports the completion of the Energy Transfer Partners pipeline near a North Dakota Native American reservation that has attracted months of high-profile protests, and has pushed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look for an alternative route. But it's unclear whether Mr. Trump will move as president to try to get the Dakota Access project route reinstated.