Canadian urge to produce expensive oil reminds us why world prices have hit a ceiling: Don Pittis

Even after Tuesday's sharp rise, oil prices remain less than half of what they were in 2014. Yet oilsands producers are anxious to sell more. No wonder the world's low-cost producers are thinking the same thing.

Tuesday's $2 jump in the price of oil doesn’t necessarily spell a return to glory days in the oilsands

The price of oil is still half of what it was back in 2014, but businesses operating in the Canada's oilsands are still desperate for new pipelines so they can increase capacity. (Norm Betts/Bloomberg News)

Despite Tuesday's sharp rise in the price of oil, new evidence this week provides a reminder that wishing for a return to the boom that propelled the glory days of the Canadian energy sector is not going to make it so.

What matters is the race between supply and demand.

The main thrust for Canadian producers is to build more pipelines so they can expand capacity and push ever more of their relatively expensive oil into the world supply chain. If that's the strategy for high-cost producers, how could anyone think the world's lower-cost producers wouldn't be doing the same thing?

Only a few days ago, resource consultants at Deloitte predicted oil was going to stay at $50 US a barrel this year, heading for $60 in 2017. Just because other optimists have been wrong repeatedly, such optimism cannot be ruled out.

Oil's ups and downs

Perhaps world demand for oil is on the verge of a large rebound. That's certainly what the oil producing cartel OPEC expects to happen.

Or perhaps something bad will happen to one or more major global producers, drying up production and draining the world's glut of oil in storage.
Crude oil storage tanks are seen from above at the Cushing oil hub, in Cushing, Okla., where storage capacity is still increasing. (Reuters)

OPEC suggests we are going to run short of oil as demand begins to outpace production as soon as next year. But that is all in the future. Right now, OPEC has downgraded world growth prospects, and therefore oil demand, due to fears about Brexit.

Oilsands gold mine

Suddenly there is the beguiling idea that after a brief pause, we're about to run short of oil, once again turning the oilsands into a gold mine for an energy-starved world.

World oil prices, both Brent crude and West Texas Intermediate (WTI), rebounded sharply yesterday.

But the reason may have less to do with OPEC's long-term optimism. OPEC is often optimistic in the long term.
Oilsands extraction at a Suncor site in June 2014, when oil prices were over $100 U.S. a barrel. Despite seeing that price cut in half, the industry wants new pipelines to help it expand capacity. (Ben Nelms/Bloomberg)

Experts say the four per cent rise back above $46 US per barrel was part of a market move to risk assets, as stocks shot back up on a new wave of confidence. As we've seen before, those are traders making short-term bets and not to be relied upon. 

Until yesterday, the trend has been a decline from the recent $50 dollar highs. And annoyingly for Canadians, it feels as if $50 has become a world oil price ceiling.

Other news out of Brazil yesterday may be an indicator of why.

More pipelines needed

Just as Canadian producers are anxious to extract more oilsands bitumen even with world prices under $50 — demanding more pipeline capacity to get their product to market — other world producers are thinking the same thing. 

Despite years of low prices and weak global demand, Brazil's oil company, Petrobras, announced it has pushed output to a new record.

"Brazil's state-led oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA said Monday that new wells helped push oil and natural gas output to a record high in June," says a Reuters report on the announcement.
Oil in storage at the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B., in 2014. Irving has since launched a major expansion. (REUTERS)

So if deep offshore producers like Petrobras are drilling new wells and oilsands operators like Suncor want desperately to increase capacity despite current low prices, where are all those production cutbacks that are supposed to be pushing prices up?

The fact is oil producers around the world, both high cost and low, know that the only way to cover the sunk fixed costs of existing operations is to produce as much as the market will bear even at prices well under $50 US. 

According to Shawn Driscoll, an oil investment manager with the fund company T.Rowe Price, at the $40 to $50 range, oil companies all over the world, not just Brazil, find it worthwhile to start drilling new wells.

Supply-demand race 

"We think we're very close to incentive pricing, that's why rigs are coming back," Driscoll told the Wall Street Journal last month. He says he has a $5 billion US bet that oil prices won't rise.
Pipelines run to Enbridge Inc.'s crude oil storage tanks at the company's tank farm in Cushing, Okla. Despite high costs, producers would like to ship more. (Reuters)

Traditional economics tells us that rising oil demand is a very good sign for the economy. Oil, as the proxy for shipping and driving and industrial expansion, tends to rise as everything else gets better. 

Of course that has all been turned on its head by worries over climate change. In the balancing act between supply and demand, global commitments to limit greenhouse gases should theoretically reduce demand and help keep prices down. 

The only true indicator that oil prices face a sustained rise is an equally sustained decline in the global amount of oil in storage. And until that steady decline starts to happen, a simple supply and demand analysis would say maybe producers should get used to prices below $50 for a little while yet.

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​More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.