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Pushing South

Peter McKenzie-Brown
May 30, 2008

“There certainly appear to be a lot of forces increasing the demand for Canadian heavy, particularly in the US,” says Steve Wuori. Enbridge’s executive vice president observes that right now only Venezuela and Mexico are seriously competing for the heavy oil market in the Gulf Coast, and “there are declines in Mexican supplies for geologic reasons, and Venezuelan declines for both economic and political reasons. So structurally it’s a very good time for Canadian heavy oil to secure that market."

Wuori’s comments reflect a sea change in Canada’s approach to selling the stuff. Early bitumen development in Alberta was slow and easy – regional producers supplying heavy oil to refineries in America’s northern tier states, with virtually no competition from overseas. Today, with surging supplies projected well into the future, Canadian producers, pipelines and marketers have had to become aggressive. Global forces are having a greater impact on the industry than ever before.

This is a good news/bad news story. The good news is that there are chinks in the armour of our offshore competitors – lots of them. The bad news is that the chinks in Canada’s armour are costing the country dear. Consider the following.
  • Fact: Already the world leaders in bitumen production and an important producer of conventional heavy, Canadians have roughly doubled their non-upgraded bitumen production in less than four years.
  • Fact: American decision-makers would be delighted to replace politically volatile Venezuelan supply with low-risk Canadian product, and Venezuela’s present leadership would be equally happy to develop markets elsewhere.
  • Fact: Mexico’s supergiant Cantarell heavy oil field is in steep decline, but Canada has the productive potential to offset the shortfalls.
  • Fact: The isolation of the Canadian prairies from the world’s sea lanes and from America’s major refining centres means bitumen producers can’t freely compete in world markets. Consequently, they get lower prices.
  • Fact: As price-takers in North American markets, Canada’s producers have to settle for lower profits, and the province has to settle for diminished royalty revenue.

All these matters have geopolitical overtones. One way or another, each calls for the economic fix of more fully integrated global markets. This article focuses on the importance to Canadian producers of integration into world markets, and some of the ideas in play to achieve it. Let’s begin with Alberta’s relative isolation.

The Economic Burden of Under-Priced Oil:Western Canada’s heavy oil sells for less than the price it would fetch on the open seas. “Alberta is not an island,” observes FirstEnergy’s Steven Pachet, with a somewhat understated taste for the obvious. “If it were, world market prices for heavy oil would be easier to obtain. Alberta is landlocked, and pipeline capacity to other markets is sometimes restricted. Mountains to the west make pipeline transportation to the Pacific difficult, while the bulk of North America stands between Alberta and the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.”

While heavy oil and bitumen sell at a discount to light crude both in Alberta and around the world, sometimes the Alberta discount increases when heavy crude from Alberta cannot reach markets. Known as the heavy oil differential, it represents the difference between the prices of Alberta’s Lloyd blend heavy oil and Mexico’s Maya crude, adjusted for transportation costs.

Lack of transportation is the main reason for the differential. The refineries that are accessible to Alberta heavy crude and bitumen can only handle so much supply. Alberta producers have limited access to US markets because of pipeline constraints, and the refining and upgrading systems in Western Canada are not nearly large enough to handle all the new production. As available supplies rise, refiners lower the price they will pay for Alberta’s heavy and oil sands-based crude until it is below world prices: the greater the competition to sell that oil, the lower the market price and the greater the differential.

This market behaviour costs Alberta, big-time. To help put it in perspective, during the final quarter of last year the differential averaged US$17.94 per barrel – the largest discount ever for Canadian heavy.

Such discounts are an economic burden on both producers and government. By Paget’s calculations, in 2008 bitumen producers will forego $1.88 billion because of the differential. This estimate uses very specific assumptions about how oil prices will behave this year.

When he presents an estimate for the cost of the discount to the provincial government, however, Paget uses a range of assumptions for its impact on royalties. In his view, the discount could cost Alberta some $200-$500 million in foregone royalty income. Also, of course, foregone revenues mean foregone taxes at every level of government.

The size of the prize can be measured in billions, but the penalty for inaction could be greater still: growing surpluses leading to greater discounts and diminishing development. The simple logic of this situation is clear. The large sums in play mean a lot of incentive for change, and a lot of change is on the way.

According to Paget, “Oil sands producers have a choice. Upgrade the bitumen into synthetic crude for higher unit revenue, or sell the bitumen and let others invest the capital to refine it into lighter crude and petroleum products.” This fundamental choice can be resolved with three kinds of development: New and expanded upgrading systems; expanded pipelines for existing markets; the creation of new markets. All are under consideration, and all are needed to meet the growing heavy flow from Alberta.

Getting to the Gulf: Here is the problem in a nutshell. Access to the world gives you the best available prices for your heavy oil. Access to a crowded regional market gives you Western Canada’s heavy oil discount. That is why the marketing Shangri-la for the heavy oil sector is the Gulf of Mexico, and why it’s important at this point to discuss the labyrinthine world of pipelines.

Cushing, Oklahoma, is now the southernmost delivery point for Canadian oil, and the closest delivery point to the vast coastal refinery complexes in Texas (4 million barrels throughput per day) and Louisiana (3.3 million barrels per day). Cushing itself has more than half a million barrels per day of refining capacity, so you can see the importance of delivering oil to these key markets. However, Enbridge’s pipeline to land-locked Cushing now supplies only 120,000 barrels of oil per day – soon to be increased by more than half. Shipping capacity from Canada to Cushing will increase by another 155,000 barrels per day with the completion two years from now of TransCanada’s Keystone Oil Pipeline extension.

Steve Paget explains the inexorable implications of these expansions. “By late 2010, total Canadian shipping capacity to Cushing will increase to 345,000 barrels per day. This is 65 per cent of Oklahoma’s total refining capacity. Canadian producers will need access to new markets to avoid swamping Oklahoma refineries.” After all, swamped refineries mean lower oil prices because of greater competition.

At the moment, Canada has no direct access to the Gulf, although small amounts – in the order of 15,000 barrels per day – are transhipped there from Cushing. Both Enbridge and TransCanada are proposing further pipeline extensions to the Gulf Coast to avoid Canadian crude being stuck in Oklahoma. The American Gulf Coast has refining capacity for bitumen, and it also needs new sources of heavy crude.

Of course, heavy oil developments in Canada are creating the need for much greater pipeline access to the coast than the volumes Enbridge and TCPL will be providing to (and south from) Cushing. At this writing there are four other proposals to increase pipeline capacity to the Gulf.

  • Enbridge’s Access Pipeline would expand existing pipe and extend the system from central Illinois to the Gulf. This would provide 445,000 barrels per day of capacity. ExxonMobil is a 50 per cent joint venture owner of the proposed pipeline and owns useful rights-of-way.
  • TransCanada is also considering several possibilities – notably (with Conoco Phillips) the Keystone project, which will convert a segment of TCPL’s natural gas mainline for oil transportation.
  • Another possible entrant is the Chinook system – a 300,000 barrel-per-day proposal by two American firms, which would use existing rights-of-way to ship.
  • The Altex Pipeline – proposed by a private company – would use new technologies to ship 425,000 barrels of bitumen per day south.

Ironically, increased oil sands production in Alberta has greatly increased the province’s need to import condensate – the mix of light hydrocarbons used to dilute bitumen to enable it to flow through pipelines. That need, in turn, is leading to the construction of yet another pipeline. According to Steve Paget, “diluent (condensate) is being shipped into the province by railcar these days. There’s plenty of diluent in North America, but how much do we want to move in by train? It’s like the old Rockefeller days. The problem is getting it here at a reasonable price, and that problem is being resolved by construction of the Southern Light pipeline, which will move diluent from Chicago to Edmonton.”

As Canada develops greater access to Gulf Coast markets, Canada’s heavy oil differential should disappear. The reason is simple. Unfettered free-market oil prices reflect just two factors: transportation costs and crude oil quality. Canada’s competitors into the Gulf Coast region – notably Mexico and Venezuela – have the option to cheaply take their production by tanker, anywhere in the world, to the highest bidder. This means their prices are driven by competition for the world’s highest prices. By contrast, Western Canadian producers are competing in a small and crowded marketplace.

The Competition: Markets always face complicating factors, and the situation along the Gulf Coast is no different. As Steve Wuori points out, “The issues are increasing Canadian supply and possible political issues between Venezuela and the United States. Venezuela has gravitated toward China and possibly other customers. This has made it more feasible for Canadian oil to replace Venezuelan production in Chicago and south.” Because of political turmoil, employees at Petróleos de Venezuela struck some years ago, cutting deeply into production a few years ago. Also, of course, the country’s disputes with ExxonMobil and other multinational companies have made international headlines.

Closer to home, the vast Cantarell heavy oil field, which provides about half of Mexico’s oil production, is in rapid decline. According to the director-general of national oil company PEMEX, production from the offshore field declined by more than 13 per cent in 2006 alone. Cantarell’s production peaked at 2.1 million barrels per day barely four years ago, but is forecast to average only a million barrels per day by the end of this year.

According to FirstEnergy’s Steven Paget, “There’s a possibility of Mexico becoming a net oil importer if the decline at Pemex is not turned around, so it is for several reasons not wise to depend on those two countries for oil.” Enter Canada – a secure and reliable supplier with vast and growing supplies of heavy oil and eager to displace imports from Latin America to the Gulf Coast.

The geopolitical considerations do not end there, however. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is increasingly unpopular at home, the country’s economy is in disarray, its heavy oil resources rival Canada’s, its labour costs are low and its transportation costs to the US Gulf Coast are a fraction of Western Canada’s. It is possible to imagine a post-Chavez Venezuela developing those resources and becoming a resurgent competitor.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: such is the weakness in the Canadian strategy of focusing on markets in Texas and Louisiana. From the Gulf, Canada’s heavy oil producers would have tanker access to the whole world, but not before paying huge pipeline costs from Alberta. To help forestall such an eventuality, Enbridge has proposed a project named Gateway.

A Nearby, Open-water Port: "Usually to create a market you need producer push and refiner pull,” says Steven Paget. “We are definitely seeing (both) for Gulf coast markets,” but right now the producer push to reach Asian markets is pretty slim. However, Enbridge is planning just such a line.

Gateway is “a heavy oil pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat (British Columbia) to carry oil to a different market than the southern US,” Steve Wuori explains. “It would carry oil to California and to Southeast Asia, by ship. The appeal to Canadian producers is that you would get another bid on the crude oil from somewhere other than the United States.” Also, of course, pipeline costs would be less.

“When (Enbridge) first started we were aiming for 2011,” Wuori says. “But now we are targeting 2012-2014” to get this line into production. Will Canada be able to supply all these markets with heavy? Wuori thinks so. “The production forecasts up to 2020 for the oil sands support that kind of growth potential, even if you risk it for economics and environmental concerns.” Indeed, Enbridge is even looking for ways to take Canadian heavy to refineries in Ohio and Kentucky “and even beyond that to the east coast of the US – to ensure that there is market for Canadian production.”

Canada’s bitumen production is the ultimate example of the blackening of the barrel in the petroleum world. For more than two decades there has been a shift in global production from light, sweet, high-quality oils to heavy, sour, poor-quality crude. This “blackening of the barrel” has been problematic for many refiners, since black barrels bring with them environmental drawbacks, require capital-intensive equipment, and refine into lower-value barrels of fuel and other products.

Most refiners prefer higher-quality oils, and producers prefer to sell those oils because they fetch a better price. So does the government of Alberta, because it wants to realize as much of the economic benefit from the oil sands as possible. What’s a province to do? FirstEnergy’s Paget has an idea that deserves sharing.

Upgrader Option: As resource owner, the government of Alberta receives its royalty share from bitumen and heavy oil production in kind – that is, it receives oil, which it then needs to turn around and sell. Most producers that upgrade their oil sands in Alberta into lighter crude or petroleum products pay royalties based on the bitumen price.

Therefore, any discount for Alberta oil sands bitumen results in decreased royalties and decreased Government of Alberta revenue, whether the crude is upgraded in Alberta or elsewhere. “Assume that bitumen royalties are 10 per cent” this year, says Paget, and that the oil sands produce 1.3 million barrels per day.” This would mean the province receives 130,000 barrels of bitumen each day in royalties – a volume forecast to grow into the foreseeable future.

“Why wouldn’t Alberta guarantee that amount as feedstock for a private-sector upgrader?” Paget asks. “If the government believes in upgrading in Alberta, then taking the oil which it in fact owns and dedicating it to Alberta upgrading is a good way to do it. It’s a good way to make policy without investing much money directly. A hundred and thirty thousand royalty barrels per day is easily enough to support one or two stand-alone upgraders.”

Paget weighs the possibilities. “The government of Alberta is faced with a dilemma. Investment is lost (whenever raw) bitumen is exported. How much investment might be lost if bitumen exports from the province increase by 500,000 barrels per day? With current pipeline constraints and artificially high differentials, royalty revenue is already being lost.”

The new pipelines under construction don’t present an obstacle to this proposal, since most of the oil pipelines from the province can ship both bitumen and other crudes, including synthetic oil. Indeed, this idea seems to be one that will benefit the province in many ways. Provincial royalties would increase, and so would producer profits.

Peter McKenzie-Brown
May 30th, 2008

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