Shipping Alberta’s fast-rising bitumen production to market through pipelines or on insulated rail cars depends on sufficient supplies of diluent, a variety of light hydrocarbons that, when blended with molasses-like bitumen, reduce the viscosity of the resulting mix. The problem is, in-region production of diluent — an economically favorable alternative to pipeline imports from the U.S. — has been growing more slowly than it was a few years ago, and increased demand for imported condensate could result in those pipelines being maxed out. In today’s RBN blog, we delve into what may be behind the slowing pace of Western Canadian diluent production and what the implications might be.

Fifteen years ago, just before the dawn of the Shale Era, more than 1.8 MMb/d of Gulf Coast and imported crude oil was being piped and barged north from PADD 3 to refineries in the Midwest. By 2019, those northbound flows had fallen by half, to less than 930 Mb/d, and in the first nine months of  this year they averaged only 550 Mb/d. Refineries in PADD 2, many now equipped with cokers and other hardware that enables them to break down heavy, sour crude into valuable refined products, have replaced those barrels — and more — with piped- and railed-in imports of favorably priced crude from Western Canada, including a lot of dilbit and railbit from Alberta’s oil sands. Today, we discuss the evolution of feedstock supply to the Midwest refinery sector.

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.

The story of crude-by-rail (CBR) in North America is that of a victory of good old U.S. ingenuity over the lack of pipeline capacity that stranded booming shale oil production in 2012. The lower cost to market of “on-ramp” rail terminals allowed surging crude production a route to (mainly) coastal refineries - igniting a building boom over 4 short years that has left 82 load terminals and 44 destination terminals operating today  - many of them now underutilized. Along the way monthly lease rates for rail tank cars that reached $2,750/month at the height of the boom are down to $325/month after the bust – with many lease holders paying daily rent to park their empty cars. Today we conclude our series reviewing the state of CBR today.

Our analysis shows that about 1.7 MMb/d of crude-by-rail (CBR) unload capacity has been built out and is operating in the Gulf Coast region today. According to Energy Information Administration (EIA) data for January 2016 an average of only 142 Mb/d was shipped into the region by rail in January 2016 down from a peak of just under 450 Mb/d in 2013 and an average of 235 Mb/d in 2015. In other words, the current unload capacity represents a whopping 12 times January 2016 shipments – a massive overbuild that is continuing today as new terminals are still planned. Today we look at the fate of Gulf Coast CBR terminal unload capacity.

According to our friends at Genscape at the end of March (week ending April 1, 2016) Bakken shippers could sell their crude at the railhead in North Dakota for $32.05/Bbl. Prices for Light Louisiana Sweet (LLS) crude at the Gulf Coast were about $5.40/Bbl higher than at the railhead but the rail freight to the Gulf was a few cents less than $12/Bbl. That means a Bakken producer would lose nearly $6.50/Bbl by shipping crude by rail to St. James, LA versus selling in North Dakota. Yet despite Crude-by-Rail (CBR) economics being so underwater - the volumes delivered to two St. James terminals averaged 66 Mb/d in 2016 through March.  Today we continue our series on the fate of CBR with a look at inbound Gulf Coast CBR shipments.

Data from the new Energy Information Administration (EIA) monthly report on crude-by-rail (CBR) shows that shipments from Canada increased from less than 10 Mb/d two years ago in January 2012 to over 130 Mb/d in January 2015. The increase in CBR movements mirrors increasing Canadian crude exports to the U.S. – the majority of which are still pipeline movements. Today we look at the destination markets for Canadian CBR in the light of congested pipeline capacity out of Western Canada.

Over the past two years the volume of crude oil shipped by rail from Canada has increased ten-fold.  Data from the Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) for the whole of Canada indicates that average rail crude exports in the first quarter of 2012 were about 16 Mb/d. That volume grew to at least 160 Mb/d in the first quarter of 2014. The increase in rail exports of crude is primarily being driven by pipeline capacity constraints. Today we introduce findings from RBN Energy’s latest Drill Down Subscriber report.

Canadian producers trying to get their crude to market have come under pressure from two directions at once. US regulators have extended the deadline to make a decision on the Keystone pipeline that would relieve ongoing pipeline congestion out of Western Canada. Canadian regulators have increased pressure on crude by rail development plans, designed to bypass pipelines, by implementing new standards for rail tank cars. With no other apparent alternatives and despite some delays, rail terminal development plans in Canada are proceeding. Today we detail the progress of rail unloading terminals that can handle heavy Canadian crude at the US Gulf Coast.

With the Keystone Pipeline decision booted down the road again Friday, the challenge for Canadian oil sands producers trying to get their crude to market looms large once again. Growing volumes of Canadian crude will be carried by rail this year to bypass pipeline congestion. But although larger unit trains are beginning to operate from the oil sands region, they mostly help larger producers connected to the pipeline feeder network. Today we review continuing manifest rail shipments by small producers.

Last month (March 4, 2014) the first unit train shipment of railbit blend bitumen crude from Southern Pacific Resources Western Canadian oil sands project arrived at Genesis Energy’s Natchez, MS terminal in the Eastern Gulf Coast region. This is the first railbit unit train to hit our radar screen.  Railbit has less light hydrocarbon diluent blended with it than the 30 percent required for making heavy Canadian bitumen crude flow in pipelines. So using rail to ship railbit saves some of the “diluent penalty” that pipeline shippers incur by buying diluent for blending and shipping it with their crude. Today we look at the logistics behind this ground-breaking shipment.

The saga of Western Canadian producers struggling to get increasing volumes of heavy crude to market in the US has not been pretty. In 2010 the rude interruption of surging Bakken crude output competing for space on pipelines built for Canadian crude contributed to a logjam in the Midwest. Now that logjam is finally unwinding and pipeline capacity to the Gulf Coast is opening up. And Canadian producers suddenly have the option to ship bitumen crude to market competitively by rail. Today we investigate why they may be hesitating to jump on board that train.