Analysis

Alberta pipeline bottleneck pressure builds

The sting of a nasty price discount hammering Alberta oil hit home twice on Thursday, underscoring the energy sector's struggles with pipeline bottlenecks and the building pressure to resolve current shipping headaches.

Cenovus cuts back oilsands production as Alberta budget highlights need to increase pipeline capacity

Alberta's new provincial budget highlights the reasons the government wants to see more pipeline capacity built. (Terray Sylvester/Reuters)

The sting of a nasty discount on Alberta oil hit home twice Thursday, underscoring the energy sector's struggles with pipeline bottlenecks and the building pressure to improve shipping capacity.

First, Cenovus Energy said it throttled back production at its oilsands facilities with the price of Canadian heavy oil lagging well behind the U.S. benchmark price, a problem exacerbated by a lack of pipeline space.

Then the Alberta government released its annual budget, a document replete with reminders of the importance the province places on building more pipeline capacity — and the consequences it sees of not doing so.

"Lack of market access is hurting heavy oil producers, government revenues and the Canadian economy," said Alberta's budget documents.

"Although WTI prices are forecast to improve gradually over the forecast period, Alberta producers will not be able to fully realize the gains. This is mainly due to ongoing pipeline bottlenecks."

"These transportation challenges faced by our industry clearly demonstrate the urgent need for approved pipeline projects in Canada to proceed as soon as possible," Cenovus CEO Alex Pourbaix said Thursday in a statement. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

One of the big issues facing both the industry and government is that while American energy producers have been enjoying a rebound in prices, which climbed over $60 US per barrel this year, Alberta heavy oil producers have been receiving far less. On Wednesday, the oil price "differential" was over $26 US per barrel.

The situation — which is kicking Alberta and the oilpatch right in the wallet — has been a long time coming.

There has always been a gap between the North American benchmark, West Texas Intermediate (WTI), and Alberta's Western Canada Select (WCS), because of the lower quality of heavy oil and the cost of transporting it to markets.

But the WTI-WCS differential began to spread further last summer as Alberta production increased, filling up any spare capacity in export pipelines. A temporary shut down of TransCanada's Keystone pipeline in November only added to the headaches.

For Cenovus, heavy oil price differentials and pipeline capacity constraints were behind the company's decision to reduce production rates. 

"We're taking steps to respond to a critical shortage of export pipeline capacity in Western Canada that is beyond our control and is having a negative impact on our industry and the broader Canadian economy," said chief executive Alex Pourbaix in a statement Thursday.

"These transportation challenges faced by our industry clearly demonstrate the urgent need for approved pipeline projects in Canada to proceed as soon as possible."

Finance Minister Joe Ceci said he's confident that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will be built. (CBC)

Pourbaix said the company has been operating its Christina Lake and Foster Creek facilities at a reduced production levels since February. It plans to sell the crude when pricing improves, he said.

Still, Cenovus noted that while its strategy may result in fluctuating production from month to month, it continues to expect full-year oilsands volumes for 2018 to be within its guidance of 364,000 to 382,000 barrels per day.

Hours after Cenovus released its news, Finance Minister Joe Ceci was also talking pipelines.

Speaking to reporters, he said he was confident that the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would get built — a "critical" project that would provide access to "the lucractive Pacific market."

The government was also keen to stress the importance of improving market access through two U.S.-bound pipelines now in the works: Enbridge's Line 3 expansion and Keystone XL.

"The economic impacts of market access are significant," budget documents said.

Indeed, by the government's own forecast, additional pipeline capacity would allow Alberta producers to receive up to $7 US more per barrel. It expects that would lift capital investment by an estimated $10 billion between 2018 and 2023, compared to going without additional pipeline access.

Improved market access would also improve oil prices and production, boosting royalties by up to $10.5 billion over the next five years, according to the government.

A man holds a sign behind RCMP officers watching protesters outside an entrance to Kinder Morgan's property in Burnaby, B.C. , on Monday. Opposition to the pipeline expansion continues. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

This won't necessarily alleviate the WTI-WCS price differential, but the increased production volumes associated with improved market access should generate greater revenues.

"Perhaps the differentials will improve over time as things change in the North American market but the budget isn't expecting anything substantial; it's largely linked to increased volumes," Ben Brunnen of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said in an interview.

Add it all up and the situation explains Alberta's apparent resolve to see more pipeline capacity built, and even Premier Rachel Notley's willingness to get into a trade battle with B.C. over Trans Mountain.

But even with the Alberta government's backing, Trans Mountain still faces stiff opposition in B.C. and Line 3 must still  get its final approval from Minnesota. Keystone XL continues to face legal hurdles put up by concerned Nebraska landowners.

So while Thursday offered a clearer look of what's at stake for the oilpatch and the Alberta government in getting more pipeline capacity built, the picture around exactly when — or if — all of the projects get done may still seem a little cloudier than many Albertans might like.

About the Author

Tony Seskus

Senior Producer Western Digital Business Unit

Tony Seskus is senior producer with CBC's Western Business unit in Calgary. He's written for newspapers and wire services for more than 25 years on three continents. In Calgary, Tony has reported on the energy sector and federal politics.

With files from Kyle Bakx and Canadian Press