He Ain't Heavy, He's My (Diluent)

So far, 2020 has been another bad year for bitumen producers in Alberta’s oil sands. For the second year in a row, they have been forced to endure production curtailments, this time in response to COVID impacts on demand and the resulting record-low heavy oil prices. Still, there are at least glimmers of hope that the bitumen market will soon enter at least a modest recovery mode, and that further gains will be possible in 2021 and beyond. Moving all of that bitumen to market in pipelines and in rail cars is going to require even more diluent than the record amounts already consumed in late 2019 and early 2020. Today, we consider the outlook for bitumen production, what that outlook means for future diluent demand, and if that demand can — or cannot — be met by the various sources of diluent supply.

Producers in Alberta’s oil sands have been through good times and bad times the past few years. Sure, there’s been a lot of growth in output since 2010. But they’ve also seen wildfires that forced one-third of production offline. And pipeline takeaway constraints that sent prices tumbling and spurred government-imposed production cutbacks. And lately, they’ve been struggling through a global pandemic that slashed crude-oil demand and led to further curtailments. Despite it all, producers and the province of Alberta are hopeful about an oil sands rebound, and shippers are optimistic that they can source an increasing share of the diluent they would need to transport bitumen from Western Canada. There’s good news on that front: there appears to be plenty of diluent pipeline capacity already in place between Alberta’s diluent hubs and its oil sands production areas. Today, we continue our series by exploring the major pipeline systems that distribute diluent supply to the oil sands.

The folks who transport bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to faraway markets depend on light hydrocarbons collectively known as diluent to help make highly viscous bitumen flowable enough to be run through pipelines or loaded into rail tank cars. The catch is — or was, we should say — that Western Canada wasn’t producing nearly enough condensate and other diluent to keep pace with fast-rising demand, so a few years ago, two pipelines from Alberta to the U.S. Midwest were repurposed to allow diluent to be piped north. More recently, though, Western Canadian production of diluent has been soaring and new pipeline capacity has been built within Alberta to deliver it to the oil sands. That has the potential to reduce the need for imports from the U.S. and may soon lead to at least one of the import pipes being repurposed yet again. Today, we continue our series on diluent with a review of the pipeline systems that collect locally produced light hydrocarbons that are eventually employed in the oil sands.

Bitumen, the heavy, viscous form of crude oil associated with Alberta’s oil sands, has been the workhorse behind Canada’s ascent to near the top of oil-producing nations. However, it is impossible to get raw, near-solid bitumen to refiners by pipeline without either upgrading it to a flowable crude oil or blending it with lighter hydrocarbon liquids, a.k.a. diluents, to form the more diluted version of the product, referred to as “dilbit.” As for moving bitumen by rail, there are two main options: using heated tank cars or blending it with diluent to form “railbit.” The rapid rise in bitumen production in the past decade — interrupted only by wildfires and the recent price crash — has generated a large parallel market for diluents, whose fortunes are closely tied to the oil sands. U.S.-sourced diluent currently meets a substantial portion of the demand. But with Alberta oil sands development poised for renewed growth and in-province condensate production rising, the Canadian diluent market could be in for some big shifts. Today, we start a blog series considering the unique role that this special form of hydrocarbon plays in the oil sands.