In May of this year, Western Canada’s oil production shut-ins due to weak demand and poor pricing were estimated to have peaked near 1 MMb/d, resulting in a 20% drop from the near-record production levels reached only a few months earlier. The magnitude of the production fall in such a short period of time caused a significant drop in the utilization of pipelines that transport crude oil from Alberta to other parts of Canada and the U.S. All of a sudden, pipelines that had been heavily rationing their capacity over the past couple of years to accommodate steadily rising production suddenly had ample spare capacity. With those supplies now on the road to recovery, pipelines have begun to fill some of that extra space and are moving toward rationing capacity once again. Today, we continue our review of Western Canadian production and takeaway capacity with a look at how this spring’s production cuts affected the region’s biggest pipelines.
Posts from Martin King
The oil price meltdown earlier this year and demand destruction wrought by COVID-19 forced Canadian crude oil producers to throttle back output. At the height of the cutbacks in May, almost 1 MMb/d of oil supply had been curtailed due to uneconomic prices and/or lack of downstream demand. With oil prices and demand having staged a partial recovery in the past few months, production is rising off the lows and producers are talking about even higher supplies in the months ahead, with the prospect of returning to pre-pandemic levels. Today, we begin a short series that reviews the recent production pullback and discusses how producers are positioning themselves for a resurgence of their oil supplies.
Canada’s propane market has quickly morphed from one characterized by abundant supply to one facing a tightening supply/demand balance, with direct exports to Asia playing an increasingly important role. This tension became evident in May 2019, when the start-up of the Ridley Island Propane Export Terminal (RIPET) in British Columbia, Canada’s first direct export connection for propane to Asian markets, effectively eliminated the usual seasonal surplus for propane in Western Canada. With rail exports of propane to the U.S. often reliant on that excess for restocking in the summer months and as a reliable fallback supply in the cold winter months, the prospect of fewer or no periods of excess supply may be signalling trouble for some U.S. regions that have come to rely on those volumes. What’s more, within a few months, another propane export terminal in BC will be starting up, further reducing what’s left for the U.S. market. In today’s blog, we conclude our series examining the Western Canadian propane market by considering the impacts of Canada-to-Asia propane sales on U.S. propane consumers and propane prices.
The Ridley Island Propane Export Terminal — Canada’s first propane export facility — has been a game changer since it started up in May 2019. Located along the coast of British Columbia, RIPET has been shipping record amounts of propane to Asian markets in recent months, just as Western Canadian propane production has been sagging due to the twin pressures of crude oil price weakness and COVID-19-related disruptions. With production down, RIPET gradually ramping up its export capacity, a second export terminal poised to come online nearby, and Canadian demand for propane holding steady, something has to give, right? Today, we examine the changing supply/demand outlook for Western Canadian propane, and what it might mean for railed exports to the U.S.
Propane exports from AltaGas and Vopak’s Ridley Island Propane Export Terminal on the west coast of British Columbia jumped to 52 Mb/d in May, the highest since it began operations in May 2019 and exceeding the terminal’s original design capacity for the second time this year. The increased exports suggest expanded capacity at the facility and the potential for sustained higher exports from there even as Western Canada’s propane supplies plateaued in 2019 and then were hammered lower earlier this year as oil prices and demand collapsed. The resulting tighter balance in the greater Pacific Northwest region has boosted prices there, wreaking havoc on price spreads and disrupting rail movements to U.S. destinations that have relied on them for the past few years, from the Midwest to California. Moreover, Western Canadian export capacity is poised to nearly double by next spring, when a second nearby export terminal is slated to begin operations. With supply upside looking tenuous, but overseas exports set to rise further in early 2021, there is a serious squeeze emerging for propane rail exports to the U.S. Today, we consider the implications of what could be a much tighter propane market in Western Canada over the next few years.
In many parts of the world, the shift away from coal-fired to natural gas-fired generation and renewables has been gaining momentum in an attempt to curtail the output of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases. The Canadian province of Alberta kicked off such an initiative in 2016 to eliminate all of its coal-fired power generation sources and replace these with either gas-fired plants, wind farms, or solar by 2030. In the past two years, the province’s major electric utilities and independent power producers (IPPs) have been accelerating these plans, such that the complete phase-out of coal will be accomplished many years in advance of the original deadline. Today, we consider this transition and highlight what should be a pivotal year for Alberta’s use of natural gas in power generation.
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.
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.