BusinessAnalysis

Keystone XL could be Canada's last big oil export pipeline

Oilpatch likely won't need much more capacity to move its product to market

Kyle Bakx - CBC News

January 25, 2017

Pipes for TransCanada's planned Keystone XL oil pipeline are stored in Gascoyne, N.D., in November 2014. (Andrew Cullen/Reuters)

Joe McMonigle called it perfectly.

The former chief of staff in the U.S. Department on Energy under president George W. Bush had guessed the morning after Donald Trump's election victory that the new president would revive Keystone XL within the first week of taking office.

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On Tuesday, that's exactly what happened. McMonigle now anticipates TransCanada will reapply to the American government within the next two weeks and the State Department will make a decision within a few months. Trump said he wants to renegotiate the terms of the project with TransCanada, but McMonigle says that won't present a significant hurdle to the project.

"There is really not a mechanism to do this in the U.S. I think there would have to be a new law passed," he said. "I really don't think we will see any condition derail the project getting approved." 

President Donald Trump shows his signature on a presidential memorandum on the Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

With Trump's support for Keystone XL, Canada's oilpatch now has government approvals in place for three new pipelines, which raises the question whether Canada will ever need to construct another large-scale export pipeline again. After several years of battles between pipeline proponents and opponents, the construction of these three projects could put an end to the pipeline politics in Canada. 

'In our view, Trans Mountain plus the Keystone pipeline would make the Energy East pipeline less needed.' - Divya Reddy, Eurasia Group

On Nov. 29 the federal government rubber-stamped the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline to the West Coast and the replacement of Enbridge's Line 3 to Wisconsin. Add Keystone XL to the list and the oilpatch is about to boost daily capacity by 1.79 million barrels. That is a considerable amount considering Western Canada currently produces about 3.7 million barrels per day of oil, all of which gets to market one way or the other.

"In our view, Trans Mountain plus the Keystone pipeline would make the Energy East pipeline less needed," said Divya Reddy, a global energy analyst with the Eurasia Group. "In terms of the production outlook for the oilsands over the next 10 years, it doesn't seem like that extra capacity is actually needed." 

If rebuilt, Enbridge's Line 3 will transport an additional 370,000 barrels per day of oil compared with current capacity.

Obstacles ahead

There is no guarantee all three projects will go ahead, even with approvals at the federal level. Trans Mountain faces court challenges and protests on the ground are expected during construction. Besides the renegotiations with the Trump administration, Keystone XL would still require state approval (including Nebraska) and the resolution of legal issues with landowners. Nevertheless, receiving approval at the highest level was the most significant hurdle.

The pitch behind Trans Canada's Energy East pipeline was threefold. The project would allow East Coast refineries to process Canadian oil, instead of importing oil. In addition, the pipeline would provide shipping access to the Gulf Coast and markets like India. If Keystone XL gets built, the case for Energy East takes a bit of a hit, because it is no longer needed to supply the Gulf Coast. 

The construction of three new oil export pipelines sounds like a dream scenario for the Canadian oilpatch, which has faced pipeline gridlock for several years. Still, the oil industry supports the Energy East proposal as well. Oil companies want a variety of markets to choose from to ensure the best price for their oil.

"Over the last decade we have been so constrained on pipeline capacity that we've been over-subscribed. We've had to send increasing volumes at times over rail that have meant poor net-backs, poor economics for Canada, poor royalties for government," said Tim McMillan, head of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

"We need an all-of-the-above approach to new and growing markets and our existing very large markets."

In particular, McMillan points out that only a project like Energy East would allow Western Canadian oil producers to supply India, one of the fastest-growing oil importing countries in the world. 

Tim McMillan sees the need for Energy East  0:47

Energy East is only in the early stages of a lengthy regulatory review process, and considering that environmentalists, First Nations and provincial governments are increasing their influence on pipeline proposals every year, the project's future is tough to predict. Kinder Morgan faced considerable opposition for a pipeline that would cross two provinces. Energy East would go through six.

What's clear at this point is that the growth of oil production in Canada may not warrant Energy East and its $15.7-billion price tag.

"Timing would be important. While we forecast continued growth in Canadian oil production, there might be too much pipe if Trans Mountain expansion and Line 3 replacement and Keystone XL all start up by 2020," said Afolabi Ogunnaike, a senior analyst at Wood Mackenzie, in a note. "At best we would expect TransCanada to build Keystone XL or Energy East, but not both."  

Clarifications

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kyle Bakx
Reporter

Is a Calgary-based journalist with CBC's network business unit. You can contact him on Twitter at @kylebakx

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