Oil prices in Canada plunged late last month, with the losses continuing throughout much of October. Canadian oil producers exposed to the low prices are now fetching around $40 to 50 per barrel less than their counterparts in the United States.
Western Canada Select (WCS), which tracks heavy oil from Canada, typically trades at a discount relative to WTI. The lower price reflects quality issues, as well as the cost of transport from Alberta to refineries in the U.S.
In early 2018, the discount started to grow significantly, the result of Canadian pipelines filled to the brim. The inability of the Canadian oil industry to build a major pipeline from Alberta to either the U.S. or the Pacific Ocean is increasingly dragging down WCS. Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, Energy East, Trans Mountain Expansion – all of these pipeline projects have run into years of delays, and in the case of Northern Gateway and Energy East, scrapped all together.
That left WCS prices languishing at discounts in excess of $30 per barrel at times this year. But the problem blew up into a deeper crisis in late September. Maxed out pipelines are still a problem, but now refineries in the U.S. Midwest are in maintenance season, curtailing demand for Canadian oil.
BP’s massive Whiting refinery in Indiana, Phillips’ Wood River and Marathon’s refinery in Detroit all undertook maintenance, according to CBC. WCS plunged to the low $20s per barrel, implying a discount of about $50 per barrel to WTI. The recent decline of WTI below $70 per barrel has somewhat narrowed the differential to the mid-$40s per barrel.
The discounts mean that the oil industry in Alberta is losing around $100 million per day, according to GMP FirstEnergy and CBC.
Wood Mackenzie told CBC that the refineries should come back online “within the next few weeks.”
Producers are turning to rail to ship their product to the U.S., a much more expensive route. Oil-by-rail shipments from Canada to the U.S. hit an all-time high of 204,000 bpd in June, according to Rory Johnston of Scotiabank. By the end of the year, rail shipments could reach 300,000 bpd.
“Given the multitude of challenges currently faced by Canadian energy infrastructure projects, many in the industry increasingly see oil-by-rail less as a temporary Band-Aid and more as a permanent, flexible component of the supply chain to a Canadian energy sector seemingly unable to push a major pipeline project to the finish line,” Johnston wrote in a note.
Echoing that sentiment, the International Energy Agency said in its latest report that Canadian oil producers are beginning to lock in long-term contracts with rail companies, a practice that oil producers once tried to avoid. Because the industry expects some additional midstream capacity in the medium-term, inking rigid contracts with rail companies for many years into the future was not the most desirable route. Meanwhile, from the perspective of the rail industry, adding capacity to handle oil was also a risk since oil producers only want rail space for the year or two.
However, the ongoing setbacks for pipeline projects, in particular the severe blow to the Trans Mountain Expansion, might have changed some minds on both sides. “Rail companies are locking in customers with multiyear contracts, as the decision by a Canadian court to overturn the approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline project is firming up demand,” the IEA said in its October Oil Market Report. “Cenovus Energy, for instance, announced a three-year deal with Canada's CP Rail and CN Rail to transport 100 kb/d of crude from its oil sands facilities in Northern Alberta to the US Gulf Coast.”
Cenovus says that shipping oil to the U.S. Gulf Coast costs around US$20 per barrel.
Scotiabank estimates that WCS will average a $24-per-barrel discount to WTI throughout 2019. Once Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement comes online in 2020, that could add several hundred thousand barrels per day of takeaway capacity, which could narrow the WCS discount to $21 per barrel.
Still, that leaves an uncomfortably long time for oil producers, who will have to struggle with painfully large discounts for WCS over the next year or so.