​Trans Mountain or no, Alberta has some oil shipping options

Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

If Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd. decides to shelve its now-stalled Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, oilsands producers will have to get creative about moving their crude.

The line would open up 590,000 barrels a day of new capacity to Vancouver. Without it, producers are left with two main alternatives: TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline and Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 expansion to Superior, Wisconsin. Neither is a silver bullet for Canada’s growing supply glut.

The two projects would allow Canada to export more than a million additional barrels a day combined, which is “plenty of new capacity for growth” through 2023, according Mike Walls, a Genscape Inc. analyst. But production growth could surpass pipeline capacity again by the mid 2020s, according to Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ projections. And, unlike Trans Mountain, neither line offers access to coveted Asian markets.

Here are a few other possibilities producers might want to consider:

Rail Revolution

Uncertainty surrounding the fate of Trans Mountain may encourage Canadian oil producers to sign long-term commitments to ship crude by rail, Kevin Birn, a director at IHS Energy in Calgary, said by phone. That could reduce inventories and improve the price.

The pipeline bottleneck that emerged late last year sent Canadian heavy oil prices to their lowest level in more than four years, relative to WTI futures. Prices improved somewhat as train shipments rose but rail companies including Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. have expressed a reluctance to add crude-by-rail capacity until oil companies commit to shipping set volumes for the long term.

Get More Efficient

Enbridge, operator of the biggest oil export pipeline network in Canada, said last year that it could add 500,000 barrels a day over several years to its pipeline system with “low cost” expansions that require “minimal permitting.”

The company already seeks to add 175,000 barrels a day to its Mainline system by next year by using drag-reducing additives and replacing North Dakota barrels with Canadian crude. Further capacity expansions could be achieved through upgrading machinery and restoring full capacity to its Line 4.

Innovation

New technologies are emerging that could make transporting crude easier. Last month, Alberta’s government pledged C$1 billion to support the construction of partial upgraders that would lighten oil-sands bitumen just enough so it flows through pipelines without adding diluent. Diluent, typically light condensate or synthetic crude, currently must be added to bitumen and accounts for about a third of the volumes that are shipped.

Another new idea: Turn bitumen into solid pellets so it can be transported via ordinary rail cars and shipped on vessels. The rail company Canadian National announced in December that Calgary-based Toyo Engineering Canada Ltd. has been selected to design and build a pilot project to produce the so-called CanaPux pellets. Such a solution may allow producers to get around a ban on tankers in the waters of northern British Columbia and ship crude out of the port of Kitimat, avoiding Vancouver.

Other Pipeline Options

Enbridge’s acquisition of Spectra Energy Corp. last year gave the company control of the Express Pipeline, a 280,000 barrel a day line running from Hardisty, Alberta, to Casper, Wyoming, where it connects with the Platte pipeline that runs to Wood River, Illinois. Expansion of the Express line is one of the “potential commercial synergies” the company is considering. Another possibility is reversing the Southern Lights pipeline that currently transports light diluent from Illinois to Alberta.

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P