Questions remain unanswered for Energy East pipeline revival plan
Who would pay for, or use, the pipeline is still up in the air
An Alberta oil sector engineer says he's got a plan to revive the cancelled Energy East pipeline project, suggesting it could help unite the country.
But there are many unanswered questions about Duane Lauritsen's proposal, including whether provincial governments will be willing to cough up the investment capital he needs.
Lauritsen, originally from Grande Prairie, Alberta, is CEO of a newly incorporated company, the Canadian Prosperity Pipelines Corporation, which is promoting what he calls the "CP3" pipeline.
He said the project is a public-private partnership, meaning he'll be looking for government investment.
Lauritsen said he's hoping the federal and provincial governments will put up about one-quarter of the $23-billion cost. He hasn't decided how to break that down by province or what he'd be looking for from New Brunswick.
"We have no hard, fast set rules about that," he said. "There's no expectation here at all."
Who would use it?
New Brunswick premier Blaine Higgs said he's happy to see a new proposal for a pipeline but pointed out he opposed the federal government buying the Trans Mountain pipeline to save the project.
"I don't think that's the business government should be in," he said. "This is very much a private-sector business and it'll finance itself. So I don't think it should be something that government needs to spend money on."
Lauristen said the project will still be viable without government funding.
It's also not clear whether Irving Oil is interested in attaching itself to this proposal and refining any of the 1.1 million barrels a day that would move on the pipeline.
TransCanada and Irving would have jointly owned and operated Energy East's proposed Saint John export terminal that would have loaded Alberta oil onto freighters.
Lauritsen said he has not "formally approached any of the identified potential markets yet in Central and Eastern Canada."
He said that will happen in the next 12 to 16 months.
A spokesperson for Irving Oil did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the proposal. In 2016, Irving said it would only take oil from Energy East if the price was right and it would continue to buy Saudi oil regardless.
Higgs said the CP3 proposal will ultimately depend on whether companies like Irving that committed to using the pipeline would be willing to sign on. Alberta oil producers that had signed contracts to ship on Energy East have shifted their commitments elsewhere.
But Higgs said he's glad to see the idea is out there and governments need to do more to remove obstacles to pipelines.
"I'm excited about it. I'm not going to say where it's going to go, but I'm hopeful that it will bring reality to using our own resources in the country."
Lauritsen, an engineer who worked on oil sands projects for players including ExxonMobil and Suncor, said in his biography that his "affinity for authentic interaction evaporates barriers. He is a marketer and a salesman, and a 'disruptive' entrepreneur."
He said he pitched his idea to established pipeline companies like TransCanada and Enbridge. After they turned him down, he decided to do it on his own.
"Over the last few years, Canada has lost the 'Can' in Canada for a variety of reasons," he states on the company website. "The CP3 project aims to put the 'Can' back into Canada."
'We've done our homework'
TransCanada Corp. cancelled its application to build Energy East in October 2017, citing new greenhouse gas criteria put in place by the National Energy Board.
But experts say the cancellation had more to do with changing market conditions that rendered the project unviable.
University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach, who specializes in energy markets, said Energy East made sense in 2013 because two other pipelines, to the U.S. and to the Pacific Coast, were blocked at a time when there were forecasts of "massive" oilsands growth.
TransCanada's $15.7-billion proposal was also relatively inexpensive because two-thirds of the route would have been on an existing converted natural gas line.
The reduced construction cost would have allowed TransCanada to charge a lower toll rate to oil companies shipping on the line.
None of those conditions exists now with the new proposal, Leach said.
"Without that whole combination of things, you're going to find it really challenging to make a project like this work."
Lauritsen said the company has studied how much it will cost to build new pipeline along the entire route from Alberta to New Brunswick, and the math works.
"All I can say right now is we've done our homework. … All the economic indicators are very positive," he said.
"I have some very, very skilled people working with me, some very experienced people. We're very confident that we've got quite an economically viable project."
Leach has published tables based on industry data showing that lower oil prices have reduced the forecast growth in production in Alberta.
In the near future, the expected volume only requires two pipelines, not three — and Keystone XL and Trans Mountain are both close to going ahead, making Lauritsen's more expensive proposal a harder sell, Leach said.
"There's no financial upside to going to Saint John as opposed to going west or going south. Unless you don't have those options, I don't see why people are going to put [money] behind a pipeline to Saint John."
But Lauritsen said a decade from now there will be demand for new pipeline capacity and that's where his proposal comes in.
Key obstacles remain
Lauritsen's proposal injects the pipeline issue back into the federal election campaign.
Conservatives have been talking about the need to revive the project without offering any evidence of private-sector interest. Now they have it.
Lauritsen says he's not affiliated with the Conservatives and his plan can go ahead regardless of which party forms the next government.
But he acknowledged some key obstacles remain.
How to get Energy East under the St. Lawrence River was an engineering challenge TransCanada had not resolved at the time it cancelled Energy East.
Lauritsen acknowledged he hasn't figured that out either.
"Have we solved the technical challenge? No. I've only been working at this for the last nine months, putting this program together," he said.
"We don't have a detailed technical team on staff at this point in time. There's a lot of work to do. Is it impossible? I personally don't believe anything's impossible but there's still a lot of unknowns and assumptions at this point in time."
TransCanada had to write off $1 billion it spent working on its regulatory application for Energy East, and Leach said "there's no sign that this company has that kind of capital to put up" in order to prepare its application and go through hearings.
Lauritsen may not be able to persuade his preferred investors — pension funds — to risk money funding a regulatory application that may go nowhere, he added.
"It's not completely impossible for a small player to do, but it seems like it would be pretty hard."