Canada's status declines in oil's new world order, but long-term prospects hold

As the energy sector begins to focus on shale oil discoveries, the oilsands settles in for the long haul.

Oilsands not the hot topic they once were at Houston's CERAweek energy conference

The oilsands are not a popular place to invest right now, but Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says her government recognizes that success requires a long-term view. (Canadian Press)

There is a definite sense of optimism this year at Houston's CERAweek, a conference that is sometimes called the Super Bowl of energy.

A year ago when the conference was held, oil prices had only just hit bottom, trading around $30 US a barrel. Saudi Arabia's oil minister told high-cost producers, like those operating in the Canadian oilsands and U.S. shale, to get out of the business. The future was unclear. 

Prices are up 80 per cent from last winter and while $54 US a barrel may not spark much growth in the oilsands, it will do quite nicely for U.S. shale producers in Texas, who feel like they are back in the game.

That was most sharply illustrated by Exxon Mobil, which announced last week that half of its worldwide budget would be spent on shale oil development in Texas and other states, as it wrote off the value of its oilsands assets.

Yesterday the company's chief executive Darren Woods announced $20 billion US in spending over the coming years, all in Texas, an announcement that prompted a tweet from U.S. President Trump and a news release from the White House.

So where does this leave Canada and, more specifically, Alberta's energy sector?

Two Canadians spoke at the conference Monday. Enbridge's chief executive Al Monaco emphasized the integration of the U.S. and Canadian oil markets, referring to them as one North American market. Enbridge is now the largest pipeline company in North America, with pipelines into every major supply basin on the continent. 

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley spoke on a panel that discussed climate policies and the Paris agreement on climate change. Her message to the audience was that Alberta's economy and energy sector could still grow with a carbon levy in place.

Climate policy is not top of mind for U.S. producers the way it remains in Canada and Europe, but the premier spoke to a large room that was two-thirds full, even as the conference day came to an end and cocktail hour loomed.

Is Alberta still in the game?

Notley was asked about whether Alberta can be competitive with places like Texas, where costs are lower and the investment cycle is short term. It doesn't take 30 years and billions of dollars to develop a shale oil well. As an example, Encana, a major Canadian independent company, is spending most of its development money in the same Texas Permian Basin that Exxon is so interested in.

"The way we are looking at it in Alberta is that the oilsands is a long-term investment," she said. "The lifecycle of the investment in the oilsands is much longer than some of the shorter-term ones that you would see in some of the new plays in the U.S."

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that the Canadian energy sector will spend $44 billion in 2017, a little more than half of what it spent at the peak in 2014, when the oilsands were the place to be.  

Notley argued that even with higher costs and carbon policy, the oilsands will be there in the long run.

"I feel pretty confident that the oilsands has the ability to remain a competitive reliable, progressive producer and supplier for many years to come," she said. "What we need to do is to plan on a business cycle that is longer than, say, the current political cycle in the U.S."