Keystone Be Darned: Canada Finds Oil Route Around Obama

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Irving Oil Refinery in New Brunswick, Canada
Storage tanks stand at the Irving Oil Ltd. refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. Photographer: Aaron McKenzie Fraser/Bloomberg

So you’re the Canadian oil industry and you do what you think is a great thing by developing a mother lode of heavy crude beneath the forests and muskeg of northern Alberta. The plan is to send it clear to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast via a pipeline called Keystone XL. Just a few years back, America desperately wanted that oil.

Then one day the politics get sticky. In Nebraska, farmers don’t want the pipeline running through their fields or over their water source. U.S. environmentalists invoke global warming in protesting the project. President Barack Obama keeps siding with them, delaying and delaying approval. From the Canadian perspective, Keystone has become a tractor mired in an interminably muddy field.

In this period of national gloom comes an idea -- a crazy-sounding notion, or maybe, actually, an epiphany. How about an all-Canadian route to liberate that oil sands crude from Alberta’s isolation and America’s fickleness? Canada’s own environmental and aboriginal politics are holding up a shorter and cheaper pipeline to the Pacific that would supply a shipping portal to oil-thirsty Asia.

Instead, go east, all the way to the Atlantic.

Thus was born Energy East, an improbable pipeline that its backers say has a high probability of being built. It will cost C$12 billion ($10.7 billion) and could be up and running by

2018. Its 4,600-kilometer (2,858-mile) path, taking advantage of a vast length of existing and underused natural gas pipeline, would wend through six provinces and four time zones. It would be Keystone on steroids, more than twice as long and carrying a third more crude.

Supertanker Access

Its end point, a refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, operated by a reclusive Canadian billionaire family, would give Canada’s oil-sands crude supertanker access to the same Louisiana and Texas refineries Keystone was meant to supply.

As well, Vladimir Putin’s provocations in Ukraine are spurring interest in that oil from Europe and, strange as it seems, Saint John provides among the fastest shipping times to India of any oil port in North America. Indian companies, having already sampled this crude, are interested in more. That means oil-sands production for the first time would trade in more than dribs and drabs on the international markets. With the U.S. virtually its only buyer, the captive Canadians are subject to price discounts of as much as $43 a barrel that cost Canada $20 billion a year.

And if you’re a fed-up Canadian, like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, there’s a bonus: Obama can’t do a single thing about it.

Done Deal

“The best way to get Keystone XL built is to make it irrelevant,” said Frank McKenna, who served three terms as premier of New Brunswick and was ambassador to the U.S. before becoming a banker.

So confident is TransCanada Corp., the chief backer of both Keystone and Energy East, of success that Alex Pourbaix, the executive in charge, spoke of the cross-Canada line as virtually a done deal.

“With one project,” Energy East will give Alberta’s oil sands not only an outlet to “eastern Canadian markets but to global markets,” said Pourbaix. “And we’ve done so at scale, with a 1.1 million barrel per day pipeline, which will go a long way to removing the specter of those big differentials for many years to come.”

The project still faces political hurdles. U.S. and international greens who hate Keystone may not like this any better. In Quebec, where most new construction will occur, a homegrown environmental movement is already asking tough questions.

Special Relationship

Still, if this end run around the Keystone holdup comes to fruition, it would give a lift to Canadian oil and government interests who feel they’re being played by Obama as he sweeps aside a long understood “special relationship” between the world’s two biggest trading partners to score political points with environmental supporters at home.

It will also prove a blow to the environmentalists who have made central to the anti-Keystone arguments the concept that if Keystone can be stopped, most of that polluting heavy crude will stay in the ground. “It’s always been clear that denying it or slowing Keystone wasn’t going to stop the flow of Canadian oil,” said Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Keystone Delays

This Canada-only idea surfaced in the days after Obama’s surprise Nov. 10, 2011, phone call informing Prime Minister Harper that Keystone was on hold. Harper, who had vowed to turn his nation into an energy superpower, responded with a two-track strategy: Get in Obama’s face on Keystone and identify other ways out for Canada’s land-locked oil sands, which, at 168 billion proven barrels, contain the third-largest reserves in the world.

Keystone remains bogged down, awaiting the outcome of litigation in Nebraska. Last year, Obama gave a speech at Georgetown University and said he wouldn’t approve Keystone if it would significantly exacerbate carbon dioxide emissions.

The pipeline to the Pacific, known as Northern Gateway, looks increasingly iffy due to opposition from aboriginal groups.

TransCanada is thus expected to file an application to build Energy East with Canada’s National Energy Board in the coming days, according to people familiar with the plan. Approval may come in early 2016. “This is almost certainly the most important project TransCanada has right now in our portfolio,” said Pourbaix.

Culture Shift

While Republicans continue to make Keystone approval an issue of the mid-term congressional elections, its fate has become less fraught for Canadians. Make no mistake –- they still want it approved under the theory that oil sands reserves are so vast that it will require multiple large pipelines to develop them properly. In the interim, they have already begun to deploy alternatives to get Alberta oil to market, moving 160,000 barrels a day to the U.S. by rail.

Canada needs another oil export pipeline by 2018 or output may be squeezed, Martin King, a commodity analyst at FirstEnergy Capital Corp. in Calgary, said today in a presentation.

“That’s crunch time,” King said. “Supply growth in the oil sands is certain to 2020.”

‘Real Shift’

Reflecting this new post-Keystone mood, Harper told a British business audience in September that the U.S. “is unlikely to be a fast-growing economy for many years to come” and after a hundred years of trying to maximize exports south, it’s time for “a real shift in the mindset of Canadian business culture.”

Which is what Energy East represents. Yet before it emerged as a standard bearer of this shift, it had to survive a rough gestation. Harper himself was slow to warm to it. Others declared it “stranger than science fiction.”

And then there were the mutual suspicions of the oil producers of the west and the refiners of the east to overcome. The inside story of how this developed into an unusually broad political consensus was put together after interviews with more than 50 industry and government executives who have been in and around the often tense negotiations.

No History

One initial difficulty: The Calgary-based oil patch and New Brunswick’s Irving Oil Ltd., operators of Canada’s largest refinery and 900 service stations in eastern Canada and New England, had virtually no history with each other. Alberta oil had never flowed farther than Montreal. They were petroleum potentates operating in separate spheres who might as well have been in separate countries.

The Calgary crowd had a lot to learn about the Irvings. Besides extensive Canadian holdings ranging from timber to tissues and shipbuilding to radio stations, this clan of aw-shucks billionaires from the poorest region of the country supplies 60 percent of the gasoline in the greater Boston area. They are the fifth-largest private landholder in the U.S., with tracts sufficient to cover four-fifths of Delaware. Their fortune has been calculated by Bloomberg News at more than $10 billion.

Falling Out

For Arthur Irving, who gained control of the family oil assets after a falling out among his brothers a few years earlier, word that an eastward pipeline was afoot was a godsend. It held out the promise of a career-capping crowning achievement, not to mention long-term profits -– if only the oil executives from the west saw it his way.

They didn’t. Arthur Irving and his company had quickly sown discord in Calgary with their steadfast resistance to commit to take a set number of barrels from Energy East, according to people with knowledge of the controversy. As far as the oil producers could discern, Arthur wanted the option to take crude at will, as he had done for years in picking the most favorable sources of foreign oil at a given moment. Before they would entertain a decades-long arrangement, the producers insisted Irving would have to put skin in the game.

Even more critical was the terminal, from where much of the pipeline capacity would be exported. The Irvings dominated traffic in and out of the port of Saint John. The Calgary producers bristled that Irving was demanding too much money for putting their crude “the last mile” through his sprawling facility.

More Sway

The oil drillers also worried that Irving Oil, situated alone at the end of the line, would hold too much sway over them. They wanted more than a single outlet. Many preferred stopping the line in Quebec and exporting on smaller ships from there, cutting Irving Oil out altogether, or at least reducing its leverage.

According to people close to the talks who aren’t authorized to speak, Arthur Irving, in turn, was livid that TransCanada, in a bid to pacify the producers, was weighing an export terminal of its own -- right on his home turf. The Irvings depended on the port like no other, loading and unloading about 400 ships a year. Arthur couldn’t stomach the idea of outsiders operating there.

It was in that frame of mind that on June 18, 2013, the then-82-year-old was in Toronto on business with Paul Browning, the new Irving Oil chief executive officer. His frustration burbling away, Irving decided he needed the assistance of one person.

Right Man

When they called that morning, Frank McKenna was at his desk at the Toronto-Dominion Bank headquarters. Irving and Browning hurried over. Irving had come to the right man. McKenna had staked first claim as the project’s philosophical father. On Nov. 28, 18 days after Obama’s call to Harper, McKenna -- stunned like many Canadians at the Keystone delay -- floated the notion of going east in an op-ed in the National Post newspaper. He liked the “nation building” politics of linking Alberta’s prosperity to Atlantic Canada’s potential. “The Keystone XL delay has shocked us,” he wrote. “Hopefully, it has also energized us.”

McKenna, vice chairman of TD, began working the phones. With six years under his belt at Canada’s largest bank and a board seat on one of Calgary’s most successful energy companies, he knew the inner workings of Alberta’s oil patch almost as well as his native New Brunswick. By evening, with advice gleaned from McKenna, Browning boarded a flight to Calgary on a mission to put things back on track.

Shale Boom

Just as Obama’s delays on Keystone was worrisome for the Canadians, so was America’s shale boom. Irving Oil’s CEO at the time of Energy East’s conception, Mike Ashar, and TransCanada’s Pourbaix could foresee the disruption pounding their businesses and had even discussed the concept of shipping oil east.

Pourbaix had come to appreciate that shale gas, by depressing prices, was discouraging new gas investment in Alberta while the Marcellus and Utica formations in Pennsylvania could compete to supply the lucrative Ontario market. Together, these developments would curtail usage of the company’s historic gas mainline from Alberta to Montreal -- an ambitious and controversial nation-building exercise of its own in the late 1950s.

Growth Projections

Energy East offered potential salvation by converting that gas line -- which would comprise two-thirds of the route -- to take advantage of “the incredible growth projections” for the oil sands, said Pourbaix. “Even with Keystone, even with Gateway, it was becoming quite clear that producers probably needed another way to get their oil to market.”

On the other end of the country, Irving Oil fretted that its refinery was starting to be elbowed out by U.S. Midwest and Gulf Coast competitors. Long accustomed to picking and choosing among imported crudes, it now watched as rivals profited from access to cheaper shale and oil sands production from the interior of the continent.

“We went from being an advantaged refiner from a crude supply point of view to being disadvantaged,” Browning, who succeeded Ashar, said in an interview in August. (Two weeks after that interview, he would, without explanation, depart the company after only 16 months on the job.)

The Irvings had a lot on the line. Their empire dated to 1924, when K.C. Irving began building out from the foundation of his father’s general store in Bouctouche, New Brunswick. Soon, he operated filling stations and car dealerships and snapped up timber lands and shipbuilding yards.

Chevron Partner

In 1960, he opened a refinery on the Saint John waterfront in a partnership with Standard Oil Co. of California, a predecessor of Chevron Corp. The Irvings took full ownership of the facility in 1988, investing heavily over the years in expanded capacity and state-of-the-art technology.

In 2000, Arthur handed the controls to his son Kenneth, a 17-year veteran of Irving Oil. Kenneth, now 53, built a liquefied natural gas import terminal on the Saint John waterfront with Repsol SA and announced plans in 2006 for a second refinery, with BP Plc coming aboard as a partner in the C$8 billion project.

After the recession hit in 2008, the Irving world changed radically. The brothers fell out and divvied up the family assets, the refinery expansion was shelved and, in 2010, Kenneth took stress leave and checked into a Boston hospital, people close to the family said.

Strong Patriach

In short order, he was banished from Irving Oil and deprived of contact with the father he worshipped, ending up, according to documents on file in the Supreme Court of Bermuda, on the losing end of a Shakespearean court fight in which he sought a greater share of the Irving trust. Chief Justice Ian Kawaley described it as a battle between “a strong patriarch and an equally strong-willed son...infused with deep-seated emotions of an intensity rarely seen outside of familial relationships.”

Kenneth Irving didn’t comment for this story and Arthur Irving declined an in-person request for an interview and didn’t respond to follow-up calls and an e-mail.

Negotiations with Arthur Irving were bound to be interesting. He was a man known for his idiosyncrasies. Finding something inappropriate about FM radios, he agitated to have them removed from company vehicles, said a person familiar with the company. He constantly griped about a convenience-store chain operating out of Irving service stations because he believed the chain didn’t clean bathrooms to Irving standards.

Moon Shot

With his son in exile, Arthur promoted Ashar, previously recruited by Kenneth from industry stalwart Suncor Energy Inc., as CEO. Ashar’s bona fides in Calgary made him the perfect guy to advocate for an eastern pipeline.

It’s almost 5,000 highway kilometers from the eastern edge of Alberta to the western edge of New Brunswick and as far as many Albertans were concerned, it might as well be the distance to the moon, so little was their knowledge. Ashar set about educating them.

He promoted Saint John’s deep-water, ice-free port, Irving Oil’s long experience in handling huge volumes of crude coming into the country and the fact any energy project in Saint John could make use of environmental permits left over from the scrubbed refinery.

India Link

And there was yet something else, once again counter-intuitive. Saint John was closer in shipping days than Vancouver to India’s refinery row, where incipient interest was being expressed about Alberta’s oil. When challenged at one meeting in Calgary, New Brunswick Energy Minister Craig Leonard pulled out a map to prove the point. Harper’s own Natural Resources Minister at the time, Joe Oliver, was still dubious and ordered his officials to check for themselves before he would believe it.

The Indians turned out to be better informed than the Albertans. When various Canadian cabinet ministers visited Indian oil companies such as Reliance Industries Inc. and Indian Oil Corp. they were astounded by the depth of knowledge about Energy East, including its shipping advantages, according to those who were there.

At one such meeting, a Reliance executive assured the Canadians his refinery could handle Alberta’s tarry bitumen. How could he be so sure? The company had already procured a tanker of the stuff from a terminal in Burnaby, British Columbia, and ran it through the facility. Both Ashar and Browning have visited the Indian refiners and Indian Oil has since signed a letter of intent with an Alberta supplier, assuming Energy East will be built.

Jobless Rate

The politics were also lining up. Energy East would become the only major pipeline proposal to win the support of all of Canada’s major political parties.

The province of New Brunswick, though home to an anti-fracking movement, found economic reasons to back the project. Its unemployment rate, at almost 9 percent, runs chronically higher than most of the rest of Canada and its per-capita income is the second lowest of any province. Many breadwinners regularly commute across the country to work in the oil sands.

Former New Brunswick Premier David Alward -- voted out in elections last month in part because of his pro-fracking stance -- joined as an early and strong force in favor of Energy East and, with the help of McKenna, brought along his Liberal Party opponents. He understood firsthand the frustrations of those flying in and flying out of Alberta. His 24-year-old son, Ben, spends two of every three weeks working as a pipe fitter around the oil-sands hub of Fort McMurray.

High Fives

Alward, during an interview, spoke as a father when he said that while a job in the oil sands afforded his son an “incredible opportunity... we’ve got a little farm at home and his passion is here, it’s not in Alberta.” About 20,000 New Brunswick workers are in the same situation, he said. Once, on the way home from an Alberta trip promoting Energy East, Alward found himself getting high-fived in the aisle of the plane by a group of these itinerant workers excited the project could create jobs and allow them to go to work in the morning and home to their families at night.

Harper himself was initially non-committal on Energy East, eager for an alternative around Obama’s Keystone foot-dragging but uncertain that the project was technically and economically feasible. He didn’t want to put his prestige on the line if the oil patch and Irving couldn’t make it work.

Build Consensus

With eight of New Brunswick’s 10 seats in the House of Commons, Conservative Party members of parliament pushed him to get out front. Noel Kinsella, the speaker of the Senate and a Saint John native, hosted a meeting around the dining room table of his Ottawa chambers. The province’s Conservative Party contingent drafted a private March 22 letter to Harper urging “a proactive approach” that would “build a consensus with the governments in the six provinces the pipeline will span.”

Though not a man prone to cross-province consensus-building, Harper liked this turn of events. Before assuming office, he had critiqued what he labeled “a culture of defeat” in New Brunswick and Canada’s Atlantic region as a whole. Provinces there, he thought, were far too dependent on government programs. Suddenly, here was a market-based plan to generate economic activity that would benefit New Brunswick, where his father had grown up, as well as his own home province of Alberta, according to those who know his thinking.

Secret Meetings

As he moved toward supporting Energy East, Harper had his office arrange a secret meeting for April 11 with oil patch executives, Arthur Irving and others with an interest in Energy East. The stakes were high, he told the group. Keystone was faltering and the Northern Gateway would be a tough sell. Setting out what sounded like a challenge to get Energy East moving, he asked what can be done to get this oil to market, said Andrew Dawson, an Atlantic Canadian trade union official who attended the meeting.

Jason MacDonald, Harper’s director of communications, said the government supports the “diversification of markets for our resources.” Harper declined to comment for this story.

Others shared Harper’s original reticence, notably Calgary’s biggest energy producers for whom transporting Alberta oil cross-country to Saint John was testing imaginations. Many preferred terminating the line in Quebec, where they had long operated, and then assessing later if it made sense to proceed to the Atlantic coast.

This sentiment drove McKenna to distraction. As premier of New Brunswick from 1987 to 1997, he had watched neighboring Quebec’s modus operandi up close. Once the pipeline paused there, he argued, the province would hold enough leverage to ensure it never went beyond. You couldn’t cross a chasm in two bounds.

Edwards View

Executives of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., the nation’s largest heavy oil producer, were among those who wanted to go no further than Quebec City. Chairman Murray Edwards, who wields great influence among his oil patch peers, warned at one meeting that he’d be watching to make sure Irving Oil didn’t get too greedy, according to a person in the room that day.

Edwards, in response to a Bloomberg News query, said he said no such thing. Rather, he argued that both Quebec and New Brunswick needed to realize tangible benefits from the line and that the best way to ensure shipments “will not be held hostage to the Irving refinery” was to make sure they had export options.

“From Day 1, I’ve always been of the view these issues had to be addressed -- benefits to the provinces the pipeline terminates in and that barrels are not held to ransom,” he said.

McKenna just happened to sit on the board of Edwards’s company. In the end, Canadian Natural agreed that it would commit equal amounts of Energy East oil to Quebec and Saint John.

Ah-ha Moment

The best argument in favor of going to Saint John turned out to be going to Saint John. The Irving facilities were spotless and nothing like the stereotypical 1950s-style belchers of noxious fumes. For Alison Redford, Alberta’s premier at the time, the ah-ha moment came watching from a helicopter as a moored supertanker unloaded its shipment into a buoy connected to underwater pipes that carried the crude ashore. Irving Oil has capacity to store six million barrels and handle the world’s biggest ultra-large crude carriers.

“To see that, I knew that was essentially the key to Alberta being able to unlock a competitive price for its oil,” she said.

Irving Influence

By the time Arthur Irving dropped in on McKenna in June, the Energy East game was into late innings –- and still in danger of falling apart. TransCanada had reached its official deadline the previous day on a so-called open season during which it sought long-term commitments from producers. Arthur Irving had removed one hurdle by consenting to take a minimum 50,000 barrels a day for his refinery (a figure Irving Oil would later increase.)

On June 19, Irving’s Browning sat down with TransCanada’s Pourbaix to work through the final sticking point -- the inordinate influence Irving could exercise through its control of the end of the line. Should anything go wrong at the terminal, the refinery would become the only conceivable buyer and could force distressed pricing on them.

TransCanada -- much to Arthur Irving’s annoyance –- had worked around him by quietly winning the provincial government’s assurance of land if it proved necessary to build its own terminal, according to people familiar with the plan. At that June 19 meeting, the company backed off, agreeing to form a 50-50 joint venture with Irving Oil, with Irving as the operating partner. In exchange, TransCanada won an assurance that the producers would not be held ransom.

Open Season

Open season was closed. TransCanada had made it known that the pipeline needed 500,000 to 600,000 barrels a day to be viable. Commitments grew to 900,000 barrels, including oil that would exit the pipeline at Quebec.

As TransCanada readies to file its regulatory application, challenges still exist. Quebec, as a hydro-electric superpower, has developed a strong green mindset even as it stands to benefit most from Energy East’s new construction, gain refinery jobs and turn inward shipments of imported oil from places like Algeria and Angola into exports up the St. Lawrence River. The oil sands at the other end of the line are alien to its political culture.

Quebec would get a small export terminal out of the deal. Environmentalists are warily eyeing TransCanada’s proposed location as well as the need for the line to cross the St. Lawrence, a major source of drinking water, recreation and commerce. A Quebec judge temporarily shut down TransCanada’s exploratory work on the terminal site until beluga whales clear the area in mid-October.

Slam Dunk

“It would be wrong to think this will be a slam dunk for TransCanada and that the Quebec government will just rubber stamp it,” said Steven Guilbeault, senior director of the Montreal-based environmental group, Equiterre.

For its part, TransCanada, slow to respond to Nebraskan concerns that the route crossed a sensitive aquifer, is paying attention to such matters this time. When the northern New Brunswick city of Edmundston complained the proposed eastern line put its drinking water supplies at risk, TransCanada quickly moved the route by four kilometers.

Back in Saint John, Arthur Irving, now 84, stands on the threshold of the regulatory review for a project with political, economic and environmental hurdles to clear without the counsel of his son or Mike Ashar or now Paul Browning. Irving Oil is without a CEO.

Nation Building

Despite such personal and commercial complications, the Irvings, builders of businesses for nearly a century, could see their under-appreciated East Coast assets become Canada’s chief outlet for its largest energy resource, reaping Irving Oil a stream of profits while providing substance to Stephen Harper’s eight-year-old energy superpower promise.

“It’s serendipitous,” said McKenna, matching “eastern refiners with western producers and is a great nation-building exercise.” If it also pokes a stick in the eyes of the Obama administration, so be it.

True to form, the Irvings aren’t talking. In early June, the wives of K.C. Irving’s two living and one deceased sons were honored for their works at a Rotary Club dinner at the Saint John Hilton.

As the event wrapped up, a reporter approached Arthur to ask if he would discuss Irving Oil’s Energy East role. “Ah, we’re just little guys up here,” he said as he turned back to his table.

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