Disaster Hits Canada's Oil Sands

Authored by Nick Cunningham via OilPrice.com,

Kinder Morgan said it would halt nearly all work on a pipeline project that is crucial to the entire Canadian oil sands industry, representing a huge blow to Alberta’s efforts to move oil to market.

Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion is the largest, and one of the very few, pipeline projects that has a chance of reaching completion. Alberta’s oil sands producers have been desperate for new outlets to take their oil out of the country, and the decade-plus Keystone XL saga is the perfect illustration of the industry’s woes.

Keystone XL is still facing an uncertain future, and with several other major oil pipeline projects already shelved, there has been extra emphasis on the successful outcome of the Trans Mountain Expansion. That is exactly why Canada’s federal government, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has gone to bat for the project.

But, despite federal approval, Trans Mountain still faces a variety of obstacles that have bedeviled the project for some time. It appears that opposition from First Nations, environmental groups, local communities affected by the route, and the provincial government in British Columbia have forced Kinder Morgan to throw in the towel, at least for now.

Kinder Morgan said on Sunday that it suspended most work on the $5.8 billion Trans Mountain Expansion.

Environmental groups hailed the announcement. “The writing is on the wall, and even Kinder Morgan can read it. Investors should note that the opposition to this project is strong, deep and gets bigger by the day,” said Mike Hudema, climate campaigner with Greenpeace Canada, according to Reuters.

Kinder Morgan’s CEO Steve Kean said the project would be scrapped unless the legal challenges could be resolved by May 31. The announcement sparked a sense of panic among various Canadian politicians.

“We are determined to find a solution. With all our partners, we continue to consider all available options. As our Prime Minister has said, this pipeline will be built,” Canada’s Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said in a statement.

Alberta’s Premier Rachel Notley, not surprisingly, sounded more alarmed. She took to Twitter to not only lash out at British Columbia, but also vow that her province would push the pipeline, even if it meant taking a public stake in the project.

However, Kinder Morgan actually didn’t sound all that optimistic, despite heavy support from Ottawa and Alberta.

“We will be judicious in our use of shareholder funds. In keeping with that commitment, we have determined that in the current environment, we will not put KML shareholders at risk on the remaining project spend,” Keane said in a statement. Kinder Morgan Canada said the project faces “unquantifiable risk,” noting the threats made by the BC government to kill the project. The company had already spent over C$1 billion preparing the project but hadn’t yet commenced construction. The beginning of construction would mean spending would jump to $200 to $300 million per month, a level of spending that the company says is too risky given the uncertainty.

“The fact remains that a substantial portion of the Project must be constructed through British Columbia, and since the change in government in June 2017, that government has been clear and public in its intention to use 'every tool in the toolbox' to stop the Project,” Kinder Morgan Canada’s Keane said in a statement. “The uncertainty created by BC has not been resolved but instead has escalated into an inter-governmental dispute.”

Kinder Morgan Canada saw its share price fall by 10 percent on the news during midday trading on Monday.

“This is not good. I think the key point is it shows a lack of confidence in our political and regulatory system,” said Tim Pickering, president of Auspice Capital in Calgary, told Reuters.

Western Canada Select (WCS) has traded at a steep discount relative to WTI, at times widening to as much as $30 per barrel. With WCS prices wallowing in the mid-$30s per barrel, heavy oil producers are missing out on some C$30 to C$40 million per day in revenues, according to Reuters.

The pipeline is critical for Canada’s oil sands. The IEA has forecasted that Canadian oil production already began to exceed takeaway capacity last year, and the pipeline shortage could last for several more years even if Trans Mountain Expansion moves forward. But, if Trans Mountain is killed off, that would be nearly 600,000 bpd of capacity that won’t come online. That raises questions about when and if the bottleneck will ever be addressed. That threatens to prevent new capacity from coming online in the years ahead.

“If we cannot reach agreement by May 31st, it is difficult to conceive of any scenario in which we would proceed with the Project,” Kinder Morgan Canada said in a statement.