Category Archives: Alberta

…on the Entrepreneurial State

With the next Canadian federal election less than a year away – and undesirables like Wayne Gretzky soon to be purged from the voter lists – I’ve been getting a lot more fundraising emails lately. As of mid-December I’d received nineteen in eighteen days. It was like a Christmas advent calendar, but in my email inbox! (Like a beleaguered Silician storekeeper, I paid my “protection money” and now they’re leaving me alone. :) )

Politicians are often derided for their short-term thinking, which is probably a fair criticism. If you ballpark an election cycle at roughly four years, newly-elected officials might take a year to learn the ropes, a couple years trying to be effective, and then a year trying to get re-elected. Judging by how successful those old Soviet and Chinese Five-Year Plans typically were, that might not be quite enough time…

The kind of decade-scale industrial policy used so effectively over the past half-century by Japan and South Korea (and Singapore… and Taiwan… and to an extent in Norway) typically occurred when these countries were dominated by one political party. This political stability may have allowed government and industry to set effective long-term plans without fear that a few years on, a new Prime Minister would reverse course on everything.

Of course, one-party dominance is no guarantee of long-term economic success – as evidenced by Mexico, parts of both the American South and South America, and … Alberta. As recent history shows, our neighbours would rather stay a Saudi prince’s whim away from economic catastrophe, than raise sales and income taxes to build up a treasury to buffer themselves from the ravages of the resource cycle. It’s as if they’d read Aesop’s Fable about the ant and the grasshopper, and concluded the grasshopper was the role model!

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Alberta oil selling at 50% discount to world price…

…which explains why the Canadian government is Hell-and-High-Water-bent on building a pipeline, any pipeline, anywhere.

First, the stats

Over the past few months, new stories have noted that Canada’s oil sector isn’t getting full price for its heavy oil — in large part because American pipelines are well-supplied with newly-flowing tight oil (“shale oil”) from North Dakota.

As a side note, I should clarify that heavy oil — termed Western Canada Select — is a somewhat-upgraded form of bitumen.  Removing the sulfur and upgrading the oil a bit more, would turn it into the “light sweet crude” used for the world’s billion automobiles.) 

Western Canada Select is more refined, and more value-added, than the diluted bitumen that Enbridge has proposed to ship to the coast of British Columbia.  The Kalamazoo River spill in 2010 that added $750+ million in cleanup costs to the local economy, involved diluted bitumen (and Enbridge).

The discount on Alberta heavy oil is measured relative to the North American benchmark price, which is for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude.  And said discount has been growing faster than a pimple before prom reaching a jaw-dropping $40 per barrel this week.  [2013-01-31: historically the discount has been about $20 per barrel  – Matthew]  WTI sells for $96 per barrel, and Alberta heavy sells for … $56.

One barrel of oil is about 160 Litres, so this means that Alberta is giving up 25 cents per litre on its oil exports.  By way of comparison, the current WTI price works out to a total price of only 60 cents per litre.  We’re talking some serious discounting, here.

Western Canada Select vs. Brent crude

Of course, the world benchmark price is Brent crude, traded in London.  And for various reasons, West Texas Intermediate Crude trades at a discount to it!  I’ve taken a snapshot of the Bloomberg Energy page below; you can see that the Brent price is $112 per barrel.

Bloomberg Energy Jan 18, 2013

We see that the price of Brent crude ($112/bbl) is exactly twice as high as the price we established for Alberta heavy ($56/bbl).  Alberta heavy crude is selling for half-off — it’s like a BOGO (buy one, get one) sale!

Oh, but it gets worse (for Alberta)

I’ve previously mused about the plausibility of US oil demand falling in the coming decade.  Which means Alberta will need to find other markets.  It will probably benefit from the building of an east-west pipeline across Canada (finally!) but wouldn’t be enough added consumption to justify expanding bitumen projects.  That would mean leaner profits for Calgary head offices, less construction work in the oil patch, and lower royalties for the Alberta government.  (Tales abound of Newfoundlanders leaving Alberta in droves, to ply their trade in their home province’s newly ascendant offshore oil sector.)

It’s a far cry from the Bow River bluster of five to ten years ago, when Alberta seemed assured of sustained, stupendous wealth — and provincial surpluses which would dwarf those of the Federal government.  (Despite the highest average yearly oil price in history, the province ran a deficit in 2012!  In basic terms, the oil sector has effected a regulatory capture of Alberta’s government, which allows them to export raw goods and perform the value-added refining elsewhere.)

The oil patch’s hopes now seem pinned on one of a few pipelines, all of which face strong opposition, and none of which can soak up the new production to which Alberta aspires.

a)  Keystone XL, by which Alberta heavy oil could be upgraded further in the US, and then exported.  Opposed by the worldwide 350.org movement.  (600,000 barrels per day)

b)  Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, by which the oil could reach the Pacific Coast.  Given the dozens of First Nations standing in the way, who have recourse to the courts and have sometimes reported dismissive treatment at the hands of Enbridge representatives, this seems unlikely.   (500,000 barrels per day)

c)  Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, by which the oil would be exported via Vancouver — birthplace of Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation.  (Added capacity: 600,000 barrels per day.)

Pipe dreams

CAPP, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, recently projected that Alberta would produce 3.2 million barrels per day of heavy oil, by 2020.  This represents an increase of 1.6 million barrels per day.  To accommodate this increase, all three of the above pipelines would have to be approved, up and running!!  Given the opposition each pipeline will face, a Beatles reunion would seem more likely…

(Yes, Alberta could of course use a *lot* of railcars, as they’re doing in the Dakotas right now.  This is doable, but more expensive — and would again cause Alberta’s oil to sell at a discount, to reflect the added costs of rail transport.)

To sum up, it doesn’t look like Alberta will enjoy another run of euphoric boom years, for some time to come.  Their product is currently selling at a deep discount due to a surge in production of US tight oil.  Meanwhile, US oil consumption is dropping (thanks largely to more-efficient vehicles) and all three pipelines face opposition.  (A Vancouver paper recently noted that opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline in rural British Columbia ran so high, it could prevent the Prime Minister from winning a majority in the next election.)  Industry shows no signs of wanting to locally refining the product further, meaning the province is locked out of adding further value, winning higher prices.  And perhaps most fearfully of all, the following words from the head of AIMCo, the Alberta Investment Management Company:

“The notion that oil is going to become more expensive because as Asia and India need more energy there’s going to be a demand-supply imbalance, well, it may not be as much of an imbalance as everybody thought it was.”

The bitumen barons’ triumphalism from roughly 2004 to 2008 was predicated on the belief that a rising tide of Asian oil demand would lift Alberta above its provincial peers.  If, maybe, China and India won’t need as much as everyone thought … the ebbing tide could leave them beached.  On the upside, its residents’ expertise with heavy equipment and drilling could help Alberta pivot into a wind turbine / geothermal powerhouse, if it chose to do so.

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[note: while environmental considerations — and generally, the desire not to befoul one’s nest — are also a factor in the future of oil production, I side-stepped the topic altogether, as the above factors are formidable enough on their own.]