By: Baden Kudrenecky
Okay, I spent all day investigating the problem Alberta has with crude oil selling for a huge discount, which is negatively affecting oil sands projects.
So, the gist of it all is that the world oil market has two benchmarks, which prices most oil contracts. There is the world (or tidewater) price, which is called “Brent” and based on North Sea light crude, and there is the Cushing, Oklahoma terminal price, called “West Texas Intermediate” (WTI). The Albertan Hardisty terminal price has to be additionally discounted to allow for pipeline fees.
The Brent price has been steadily escalating over the past few years, where the WTI has gone down, as the oil is landlocked, with insufficient domestic refining capacity. This has resulted in a 20 dollar spread in the delivery prices, which is probably going to widen, as there is no new refining capacity in the USA, and the supply is steadily increasing from the oil sands and new tight oil production. Basically, pipelines are a magnitude more expensive to ship oil in than on tankers, which are almost free in comparison, so tidewater is where you want to sell your oil.
So, what is being done? The herds are all following increased pipeline capacity to Cushing to relieve an illusionary export problem. But, the bottleneck IS Cushing where stocks are steadily rising and prices falling. There seems to be a mindless rush to get the Keystone XL pipeline running to alleviate a glut in Alberta. The only part of the Keystone project that is sensible and now under construction is the link between Cushing and the Gulf coast, which will help with the current Cushing glut. The glut itself was exacerbated due to the first Keystone stages supplying Cushing with much more Albertan oil than could be consumed. The cross border XL project will drown Cushing in more oil. One analyst said it’s “the worst place in the world to be selling oil”, and this situation will probably deteriorate in the long term. The Gulf refineries cannot process much more oil, and the USA cannot export it, so the bottleneck may only move somewhere else.
So, who is benefiting from duping Albertans into building more capacity into Cushing. The biggest benefactors are the
Midwest USA refineries, who can buy their feedstock at $20/bbl cheaper then their competitors. Next are the Gulf area refineries who also want some of that cheap canuck oil. And finally are the big pipeline companies who have hoodwinked Albertans into believing that is in their best interests to ship oil 3500 km to the Gulf of Mexico coast for maybe 40/barrel less than the world market price. In comparison, tidewater on the Pacific coast with world prices is only 1100 km away.
Another proposal (MEC) is to ship oil by train from Alberta to Chicago where it can be transported by barge down the Mississippi River. This is only a modified version of the foolish pipeline plan, and lacks economic rigour and vision. First off, Chicago is 2700 km away by rail, where Thunder Bay is 700 km closer.
However, this idea leads to the easiest and quickest solution. Why cannot Alberta oil be transported by train to the Pacific coast? Each train could haul 100 000 bbl, and the cost would be under $10/bbl. There are now massive volumes being transported in the USA by train, so many smarter people are making fortunes doing that. The logistics are simple, and the railways might even be able to start next Tuesday. This concept is so easy and profitable, it’s a wonder that it still eludes Albertan producers, who continue to be hoodwinked and heisted by the pipelines and USA refiners.