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.
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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.
Canada’s energy sector has been hit hard by the recent oil price collapse that was initially set off by the now-ended Saudi Arabia-Russia price war and made much worse by the demand-destroying effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. The impacts on Canada’s crude oil and natural gas sectors have been both dramatic and nuanced. For example, oil supply cutbacks have been rapid and substantial, while there has been virtually zero impact on natural gas supplies. Oil demand has been similarly affected, with refined product demand seeing a large swoon, while natural gas demand has suffered only a modest pullback. And for Canada’s energy exports, these have experienced some jolting swings in a matter of weeks, putting the whole sector under pressure to adapt where possible. Today, we highlight some of the recent market disruptions and their implications.
The collapse in crude oil prices that resulted from the Saudi-Russian price war in March — made only worse by the oil demand-depressing effects of COVID-19-related shelter-in-place orders — has begun to exact a toll on U.S. crude supplies. The Bakken, America’s #3 oil-producing basin, is a prime example of how quickly the price downturn has begun to negatively affect oil supplies as uneconomic wells there have been shut in and oil-focused drilling has ground to a near standstill. The spillover effects on the Bakken’s associated gas supplies have been just as dramatic with a sharp reduction seen since April as oil well shut-ins began to accelerate. The decline in these natural gas and NGL supplies to date provides a stark example of how quickly gas balances may be shifting in the region and may also be creating an opening for long-suffering Canadian gas exports. In today’s blog, we take a closer look at how Bakken oil supply declines are beginning to impact its gas supplies.
Significantly reduced demand for crude oil by refineries is spurring production cuts in Alberta’s oil sands, and that could lead to a major decline in demand for Western Canadian natural gas. The oil sands are the single largest consumer of natural gas in Canada, accounting for more than half of the gas used in Alberta year-round and up to 37% of the gas used nationwide. With that kind of clout, anything that affects gas consumption in the oil sands is bound to have an outsized impact on the Alberta and overall Canadian natural gas markets. Today, we conclude our series on the effects of COVID-related disruptions on the Canadian natural gas market.
The Canadian natural gas market has exited the most recent heating season in reasonable shape. Storage withdrawals were below average thanks to mild winter temperatures, but overall storage levels at the end of the season were not too far out of line with the five-year average thanks to below-average storage levels in the west more than offsetting above-average storage levels in the east. However, Canadian gas storage may be facing a most unusual test this coming summer as storage injection activity will be influenced by reduced gas demand in the U.S. due to COVID-19 disruptions, as well as the potential for similar pandemic-driven weakness in homegrown demand, especially in Alberta’s gas-intensive oil sands. How the various pushes and pulls on gas flows play out this summer could very well determine if Canadian gas storage might test capacity limits this injection season. Today, we consider this possibility.
The crash in global crude oil markets has meant low prices for all producers, but no place more so than in Alberta’s oil sands. Transportation, blending and quality differentials mean that benchmark Western Canadian Select (WCS) is priced at a significant discount to light, sweet West Texas Intermediate. With WTI prices seemingly stuck below $30/bbl, the absolute price of WCS last week tumbled to all-time lows below $5/bbl. If they persist, will WCS prices south of $10/bbl generate wide-scale production shut-ins in the oil sands? Today, we continue our series on the challenges facing Alberta’s oil sands.
The collapse in crude oil prices has sent shock waves throughout the global energy industry and Canada has been no exception. Sorting through all the impacts will take time, but what’s clear is that any earlier optimism surrounding supply growth in Canada has evaporated, including for propane supply to feed the new propane export terminals on British Columbia’s coastline. Edmonton propane prices fell 58% since the start of March to as low as 10.25 cents per gallon in U.S. dollars on March 23 — the lowest level since April 2016 — and settled yesterday at 13.13 cents per gallon, according to data from our friends at OPIS. A dampened supply outlook means future export expansion plans also are being reconsidered. Today, we explore what the sharp decline in propane prices could mean for the region’s supplies and future propane exports, including from Pembina Pipeline’s nearly completed export terminal in Prince Rupert, BC.
Canada has been facing a similar situation to the U.S. in recent years in which the production of natural gas liquids, such as propane, has been rising sharply thanks to a focus on liquids-rich gas wells in unconventional gas plays. In response to the rising bounty of propane, infrastructure development in Canada has focused on export projects, and in 2019, the completion of the new Ridley Island Propane Export Terminal in British Columbia enabled the first overseas exports of propane from Canada’s west coast, allowing Western Canadian producers to access destination markets beyond just the U.S. for the first time. Later this year, Pembina Pipelines, a developer of energy infrastructure projects across Western Canada, will complete a new propane export terminal just outside Prince Rupert, BC, further boosting propane exports to overseas markets. Today, we take a closer look at propane supply issues, Pembina’s new propane export terminal and recently announced plans to further expand the terminal’s export capacity.
Unlike most natural gas producing jurisdictions in North America facing a pullback in drilling and capital spending, producers in Western Canada appear to be doing the opposite and lining up for a year of rising production, higher average prices and additional pipeline capacity from producing basins. In short, 2020 should be a year in which supplies in the region mount a comeback after the dismal down year for supplies — and prices — that characterized 2019. A good part of that supply and pipeline capacity growth optimism has to do with a major pipeline expansion out of the Montney Basin in northeastern British Columbia that just recently entered service. Dubbed the North Montney Mainline and operated by Canada’s largest gas pipeline company, TC Energy, this vital piece of new pipeline egress from one of the most prolific unconventional gas basins in North America is setting up Western Canadian gas supplies for recovery in 2020 and beyond. Today, we continue our series with a look at what this may portend for gas supplies this year.
Natural gas supplies in Western Canada fell into a hole in 2019, registering their first decline in a half-dozen years. That drop was led by a supply pullback on TC Energy’s Nova Gas Transmission Limited (NGTL) system, the largest gas pipeline network in the region, as producers grappled with widespread pipeline maintenance, shrinking budgets, and wellhead shut-ins due to ultra-low prices, especially during the summer months. That supply hole is going to be fixed in the months ahead, thanks to a major pipeline expansion — the North Montney Mainline — that recently entered service with a direct connection into the NGTL system. With this new pipeline tapping deeper into the vast Montney formation in northeastern British Columbia, gas supplies are showing signs of pushing higher, and more upside is expected in the months ahead. Today, we examine the new pipe and what it means for gas supplies on NGTL.
Canadian oil and natural gas producers were dancing very much to the same tune as their U.S. counterparts in 2019: reduce capital spending, live within cash flow and improve returns to investors. The only major difference for Canadian gas producers is that they were forced to dance even faster due to abysmal natural gas pricing during the summer of 2019, which cast a very negative pall over the whole sector for the remainder of last year. Although the focus on spending restraint, cash flow and returns has not changed for these producers upon entering 2020, there are encouraging signals that Canadian gas pricing will be materially improved this year, especially during the summer months, supporting higher cash flows and a cautious expansion in capital spending. Today, we examine the drivers behind what might increase capital spending by gas producers and lead to an increase in supplies.
This year looks like it could be a better one for many Canadian natural gas producers. Like their brethren in the U.S., they have been forced in recent years to increasingly spend within — and even less than — cash flow as other sources of financing have dried up and investors have prioritized better returns over production volume growth. With Canadian gas producers having also faced some of the worst natural gas pricing conditions on record in 2019, far worse than those in the U.S., it is no wonder that Canadian natural gas supplies pulled back in 2019, marking the first down year for overall gas supplies since 2012. Despite what is likely still to be a cash flow and spending constrained environment in 2020, there is the potential for real upside for Western Canadian natural gas supplies this year, especially for the supply that flows into TC Energy’s Nova pipeline system. Today, we consider what may be setting the stage for gas supply gains on the Nova system in 2020 after a somewhat dismal 2019.