Crude-by-Rail (CBR) has been a savior for North American producers seeking higher returns for heavily discounted crudes caused by a lack of pipeline take-away capacity. And CBR, once again, is on the rise. North American shipments of petroleum and petroleum products are up over 10% year-to-date compared to 2017. In May 2018, nearly 200,000 barrels per day were shipped by rail from Canada to the U.S., nearly five times that of June 2016. But, the story of CBR is really about how price differentials became so large in certain regions.
For Western Canadian producers, intense anti-pipeline opposition, regulatory changes, legal limbo, political tensions and foreign interference from well funded U.S. environmental lobbies have muddled new projects. In Western Canada, new export capacity has been politically denied (Northern Gateway), cancelled (Energy East), or is still in the process of getting the darn shovels in the ground (Trans Mountain Expansion, Keystone XL, and Enbridge Line 3 Expansion).
For U.S. producers, the story is quite a bit different. While anti-pipeline opposition has been present, at Standing Rock for example, U.S. midstreamers largely could not keep up with blistering pace of production set off by the “shale revolution.” The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that 2018 US crude production will more than double that of 2008 and sit around 10.7 million barrels per day. Often pipelines were needed where there was no previous or oil or natural gas infrastructure. In addition, pipelines can’t be built overnight: Years of planning, permitting, and construction are required.
With global crude prices now stabilized from the price crash in 2015/2016, all is not well in Western Canada and West Texas/Southwest Mexico. Massive price differentials are preventing some producers from enjoying the current price recovery. A large Western Canadian Select-West Texas Intermediate (WCS-WTI) differential is back, sitting at a painful $27 US per barrel (August 13, 2018). And Morgan Stanley suggests that with increasing Permian production and lack of take away capacity, the Midland-WTI differential of $15.50 per barrel (July 2018) could blowout to $25-$30 per barrel in 2019.
However, there are some signs that CBR may not be the savior it is hoped to be. To start, lease rates for DOT 117 cars have jumped from $400 to $1000 per month. The size of the U.S. crude oil fleet sits at about 15,500 cars, compared to nearly 51,000 in 2014. And tariffs affecting new pipeline construction could also impact the rail industry.
For companies that do not make the Trump Administration’s steel tariff waiver list, one can expect additional costs for tanker car construction to be passed onto customers. Producers hit by large price differentials may have to pay even more for each new DOT-117J or 120J200 tanker car they buy or lease.
To make matters worse, BNSF is now refusing to haul DOT117R tanker cars, the majority of which are legacy DOT111 & CPC1232 cars retrofitted with additional safety features. This would complicate things for the owners of roughly 12,500 DOT117R tanker cars, because BNSF moves a lot of crude. In the last quarter of 2017, nearly half of all U.S. CBR was shipped by BNSF. If other rail operators do the same, those DOT117R could quickly be sent to America’s empty places to collect graffiti and birds nests just like thousands of DOT111s. Although tanker car manufacturers have been building DOT117s & 120J200s at a steady clip, about 19,000 since 2014, the impact of removing over 12,500 DOT117Rs from service will be more than noticeable. Not every owner may be in a position to fork over additional dollars to buy DOT117s, especially after retrofitting their old DOT111 or CPC1232.
Suffice it to say, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers are concerned with “BNSF’s decision to refuse certain DOT-authorized tank cars and are currently considering options to address these concerns with the railroad.” However, BNSF may very well indeed have the right to exclude use of equipment that it feels is unsafe or too risky to haul. We shall see how this pans out.
Seasonal factors can also impact CBR. Major logistical issues arise during extended periods of extreme cold weather in Canada and the Northern U.S. For example, rail operators deal with icy tracks and can’t haul as many tanker cars. Likewise, trains must run at lower speeds and more locomotives are needed to move the same volume of product. This can lead to rail terminal congestion. CBR shippers also have to contend with grain shippers after fall harvest during the winter months.
And then there are unique factors that arise based on the region. For example, the Permian is sucking up 45% of all U.S. frac sand, and, ironically enough, is impacting CBR take-away capacity in the region.
Producers in Western Canada and the Permian will be paying close attention to the outcome of Trump’s steel tariff waiver list (both tanker car manufacturers and midstreamers), BNSF’s decision to ban DOT-117R tankers, and other regional factors that can impede take away capacity. The EIA estimates U.S. production soaring to 11.7 million barrels per day in 2019. Canadian heavy crude could rise by half a million barrels per dayin the same period. But, even without pressure on the market for tanker cars, suggesting CBR is a stop-gap for new North American pipelines may be quite a stretch.
P.S.: Plains All American Pipeline’s steel tariff waiver application was rejected for the Cactus II pipeline which would run from the Permian to Corpus Christi. Future pipelines in the region may also be forced to pay for domestic steel piping or pay a 25% tariff on imports if they do not get White House approval for tariff exemption.