Photographer: Andrew Burton

Forgot About Keystone? Canada's Oil Majors Haven't

Canada's oil means no disrespect -- it is Canadian -- but it would just like to get the hell out of Canada.

The question is: Can it?

I wrote here last week about logistical bottlenecks playing havoc with U.S. oil pricing. But Canada takes this to a new level.

Most of the country's oil comes from Alberta. Heavier, higher in sulfur and far from the American refineries on the Gulf Coast optimized to take it, Western Canada Select crude oil tends to trade at a discount to West Texas Intermediate.

It also trades at a discount to Mexican Maya crude, which is similarly tough to refine but much closer to the Gulf. In general, therefore, the discount of WCS versus Maya usually reflects the extra cost of piping those Canadian barrels south, roughly $7 to $10 a barrel. Recently, though, the spread has blown out:


Canadian heavy oil usually trades at a discount to Mexican barrels because it has to travel further to market. But the spread is now well beyond pipeline costs

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Source: Bloomberg

This partly reflects some of those U.S. bottlenecks I mentioned. Meanwhile, production of heavy oil from Mexico -- and another regional supplier, Venezuela -- has been declining, and Saudi Arabia has been withholding barrels.

But the bigger issue is that Alberta's production is outpacing its pipelines. And the problem will get worse before it gets better: Futures imply average spreads of about $17 a barrel over the next two years.

Western Canada produced 3.9 million barrels a day in 2016, and that's set to reach almost 4.8 million a day in 2022, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. That growth is front-loaded, too:

Sand Storm

New oil-sands projects are about to start up, boosting Alberta's production

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Source: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

Note: Data after 2016 are projections.

Local refineries can process about 525,000 barrels a day , and a new one starting up next year should run roughly another 40,000 a day.

With about 3.3 million barrels a day of effective pipeline export capacity , that leaves about 330,000 barrels a day looking for a way out this year. That jumps to more than 600,000 a day next year and almost 700,000 a day by 2019.

Oil that can't secure space on a pipe has to go by rail instead, which costs more like $13-$18 a barrel to get to the Gulf Coast. Hence the widening spreads in futures prices (and lower margins for producers).

Three new pipelines are proposed. But getting pipelines built isn't straightforward these days -- one of the three is that Keystone XL project you might have heard about over the past decade. Even assuming they clear all their regulatory hurdles, secure customers and go smoothly, extra capacity wouldn't begin to show up until the second half of 2019:

Coming Down The Pipe?

Three proposed pipeline projects could eventually add another 1.5 million barrels a day of export capacity for western Canada's oil producers

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Source: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Bloomberg Gadfly analysis

Note: Production data post-2016 are projections. Assumes local refinery utilization of 85 percent. Assumes existing-pipeline utilization of 80 percent; planned pipelines at 85 percent. Assumes Line 3 replacement enters service in 2H2019.

For the next two years, at least, therefore, pricing will be a headwind for producers in western Canada, though not all equally. Imperial Oil Ltd. and Cenovus Energy Inc. are more exposed because they refine less of their own heavy oil production compared to, say, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc.

On the flip-side, Canadian National Railway Co. and some of its peers should benefit as more barrels switch to rail:

Rolling Along

Canadian producers have started loading more barrels on to trains again as pipeline constraints start to bite

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Source: National Energy Board of Canada

Note: Trailing 12-month averages.

U.S. refiners able to process Canadian barrels looking for a home could also benefit from cheaper raw materials (similar to what happened with Midwestern crude before the U.S. export ban was lifted in late 2015). HollyFrontier Corp. and Phillips 66 should capture some of the discount on Canadian oil for themselves.

Looking beyond 2019, though, it's worth remembering there's no guarantee all these pipelines get built. Besides regulatory hurdles, if they all show up, western Canada would flip quickly from a pipeline shortage to a surplus. The chart below shows what happens if Enbridge Inc.'s Line 3 replacement project -- the likeliest of the three -- goes ahead and neither, one, or both of the others get built:

XL or Excess?

There is clearly room for two new pipelines, but the addition of both Trans Mountain and Keystone XL after the Line 3 project would create a lot of surplus export capacity

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Source: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Bloomberg Gadfly analysis

Note: Oil production projections as per CAPP figures noted in the accompanying column. Assumes local refinery utilization of 85 percent; existing pipeline utilization of 80 percent; new pipeline utilization of 85 percent.

TransCanada Corp. told investors last week that if regulators in Nebraska give the go-ahead later this month, it has clients ready to support the Keystone XL project. Despite the apparent surplus this would entail, Canadian oil producers may well value an extra option. Two other pipeline proposals have died already -- including TransCanada's own Energy East proposal -- and there's no guarantee Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd.'s Trans Mountain expansion gets built. Spare capacity could also accommodate potential new oil-sands projects down the road.

That last point still looks like a stretch, though. Besides the uncertainty around medium-term oil markets right now, heavy barrels like those from Alberta face a particular problem from 2020 onward.

That's when tighter regulations for marine fuel kick in. Analysts at Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., a boutique energy bank, estimate this could result in at least 1.75 million barrels a day of high-sulfur fuel oil effectively flowing back onto the market as ships switch to cleaner options. Those barrels would compete closely with western Canada's output; another headwind to pricing.

For all the puts and takes, two things are clear over the next few years. First, Albertan producers that also refine their output can weather the dislocations better. Second, it's a good time to own the exits.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.