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Pipeline Pinch Adds to Oil-Sands Woes With Keystone Still a Hope

June 28, 2017


Call it the pipeline pinch, or maybe the Keystone quagmire.

While plans by Canadian companies from Suncor Energy Inc. to Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. to boost oil output are racing to fruition, the construction of three pipelines needed to move that product to market, including the infamous Keystone XL, is lagging years behind.

The end result: Producers have little choice but to move those extra barrels by train, with costs two to three times higher than pipeline shipping. It’s an unwelcome added expense after oil plunged about 20 percent from this year’s peak. Futures prices have settled in below $45 a barrel, after many predicted it would rise to $60.

“We’re not going to see significant new pipeline capacity until late 2019 or 2020,” said Nick Schultz, vice president for pipelines and regulatory matters at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. In the meantime, the extra expense for shipping “impacts royalties and other things that impact the public.”

During the Barack Obama administration, oil-sands producers feared a future when they would have to rely heavily on costly railway shipments if he didn’t approve Keystone XL. That may start this year.

Pipelines in Western Canada, which holds the world’s third-largest oil reserves, can carry about 3.3 million barrels of crude a day, according to CAPP. Meanwhile, the area is expected to produce 3.92 million barrels a day this year and 4.2 million next year as a number of large oil-sands projects come online.

The looming bottleneck adds a new urgency to the industry’s calls for more capacity and may lend credence to its argument that the lack of lines hurts the nation’s economy.

More Expensive

Canadian oil producers have long lamented the dearth of pipelines carrying their supplies to the nation’s east and west coasts, saying that the situation leaves them able to export only to the U.S. and forces them to accept whatever price American refiners will pay. Environmentalists in Canada and the U.S. have opposed new or expanded pipelines, arguing that burning the crude locked up in the oil sands would contribute to catastrophic global warming.

The industry saw glimmers of hope last year, when government regulators approved expansions of Kinder Morgan Inc.’s Trans Mountain pipeline linking Alberta’s oil sands with export facilities on British Columbia’s Pacific Coast as well as Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 running from Hardisty, Alberta, to the U.S. border in Manitoba. The pipeline situation got another boost when U.S. President Donald Trump approved TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL, which spans from the oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

More Hurdles

Yet, Keystone still needs to win approvals from regulators in Nebraska, and the Line 3 project has faced delays that pushed its in-service date back to 2019. The fate of Trans Mountain also has been called into question after opponents of the project won power in British Columbia last month.

Meanwhile, there are a handful of massive new oil projects that will start production this year and next. Suncor’s Fort Hills oil-sands project is expected to begin production in the fourth quarter and ramp up to about 90 percent of its capacity of 194,000 barrels a day within 12 months. Canadian Natural plans to complete another phase of expansion at its Horizon mine this year that will add 80,000 barrels a day.

While Suncor has pipeline space reserved for output from Fort Hills, the company believes market access is important to Canada’s oil producers and its economy, said Sneh Seetal, a spokeswoman. Canadian Natural isn’t concerned with transportation of Horizon’s production because the operation produces light oil, which has fewer shipping constraints, said spokeswoman Julie Woo.

“Though transportation of crude oil by pipeline is our current and primary method of shipment, we evaluate and monitor on an ongoing basis where crude by rail has been, and will continue to be, an option,” Woo said. 

Offshore Project

More oil will be produced outside of Western Canada as well. The Hebron project off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador also is expected to come online this year. Operated by Exxon Mobil Corp. with investments by Chevron Corp., Suncor, Statoil ASA and Nalcor Energy Corp., Hebron is expected to have crude oil production capacity of 150,000 barrels a day at its peak.

All that extra Canadian crude promises to be a boon for railroad companies who were stung by declines in that business when crude prices crashed in 2014. In fact, some already are seeing a pickup in their oil business. Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Keith Creel said on a conference call last month that the company had moved 17,000 carloads of oil so far this year, nearly meeting its forecast for 20,000 carloads for all of 2017.

Two-Year Window

Canadian National Railway Co. foresees a two-year window of opportunity before Trans Mountain starts up and crude-by-rail shipments are affected, Chief Commercial Officer Jean-Jacques Ruest told an investor presentation June 14.

If crude-by-rail demand “comes in, you want to ride it very hard, and if at some point the opportunity disappears, then you ride something else,” Ruest said.

Crude and condensate accounted for about C$370 million ($281 million) of revenue at Canadian National Railway last year. That’s less than half the C$750 million that the company generated from the same line of business in 2014. The company’s overall revenue was C$12 billion last year.

Railways may benefit from a pickup in their oil businesses for the next year or two, said David Tyerman, an analyst at Cormark Securities

“They view it as a short-term boost,” he said. “They’re happy to haul the stuff, but they’re not going to spend a lot of money on infrastructure because they don’t know if this is going to be around long.”

But the oil industry’s trade group sees a need for more pipelines beyond those that already are expected to enter service. Canada will need an additional 1.3 million barrels a day of pipeline capacity by 2030 to meet the nation’s growing production, CAPP said in a report earlier this month.

“The urgent need for new pipelines to increase our competitiveness continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing our industry,” CAPP CEO Tim McMillan said.

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