Exclusive: Ditched Bitumen Desperately Seeks True Commitment
Opinion & Analysis
‘No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.’
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was firing on all “sunny ways” cylinders when he gave a rousing defence of exploiting Alberta’s gigantic bitumen deposits at the big CERAWeek oil and gas conference in Houston, Texas in March, 2017. His speech ignited an ovation from oil company executives, extensive coverage in Canada’s business press, and grateful praise from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
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The same Houston conference also applauded the tsunami of high-quality crude production from nearby shale oil formations, a Congressional decision to allow essentially unrestricted U.S. oil exports after a 40-year ban, and the advent of ocean supertankers capable of shipping two million barrels of refined oil in a single cargo to foreign ports.
No one apparently noticed that the second round of applause badly undercut the first. Or that Justin Trudeau did not specify who will buy all that irresistible Alberta oil for decades to come.
He has not since.
Nor has Rachel Notley.
Nor have tar sands/oil sands producers—or pipeline companies—detailed which foreign countries are committed customers. No contract volumes or prices have been disclosed.
Nevertheless, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Alberta’s major producers have endorsed a plan to increase tar sands/oil sands extraction 33% by 2030, and allow a 40% rise in greenhouse gas emissions by then. Virtually all that additional bitumen (1.3 million barrels per day) must be exported to foreign refiners, they claim, to garner higher prices by avoiding “discounts” U.S. refiners demand to process their dirtier product.
And so tripling the capacity of the Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver, and building the Keystone XL to Texas tidewater, are deemed imperative.
But if those prospective foreign customers vanish, or never arrive in Fort McMurray with fat cheques and long-term purchase contracts, future Alberta producers will end up losing money on every barrel of oil sold—while expecting to somehow make that up in volume.
Alberta Oil in the Rear-View Mirror
In fact, Alberta’s three biggest targets for future tar sands/oil sands exports—China, India, and Europe—have already put that prospect in their rear-view mirror.
In January, Russia opened the valves on a second oil pipeline crossing directly from eastern Siberia into northern China, which will double import volumes to 600,000 barrels per day.
- The Russian pipelines are dedicated to supply light, sweet crude to China for decades, at prices and volumes favourable to both countries. Another dedicated oil pipeline from Kazakhstan, co-owned by China, can supply a state refinery at the rate of 375,000 barrels per day, or 12.3 million tonnes per year.
- Russia’s newest Pacific Coast oil port at Kozmino Bay now supplies supertankers shipping crude to coastal refineries in southern China at a rate of 445,000 barrels per day. There is another oil pipeline terminal at Vladivostok. By 2020, Russian pipeline exports to China are projected to reach 1.6 million barrels per day. Russia, Angola and Iraq have now replaced Saudi Arabia as the top oil suppliers to China.
- U.S. oil exports to China are projected to increase 80% this year. In January alone, America exported US$1 billion worth of crude, 400,000 barrels per day, under contract to the state-owned company Sinopec, supplying 10 China refineries. Increasingly, that oil arrives on supertankers chartered from Gulf Coast terminals.
- Last year, a new oil pipeline from Myanmar began delivering 400,000 barrels of crude per day to inland China. The southern pipeline terminal is a tidewater port, served by supertankers which can carry oil directly from the Persian Gulf, or west Africa, Algeria, and Libya via the Suez Canal.
- The Myanmar pipeline eliminates 4,000 nautical miles and 16.7 days of shipping through the Straits of Malacca ocean route to Shanghai. By contrast, it takes 21 days for an oil tanker travelling at the same speed to cover 5,000 nautical miles from Vancouver to Shanghai. The ships loading at Vancouver can carry a maximum of 550,000 barrels as cargo. So the Myanmar pipeline can pump almost as much oil in one day as an Aframax tanker can deliver in three weeks.
- India’s oil imports have slowed in the past year. Its major suppliers—Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and Nigeria—all have large oil reserves for future export, and are served by tidewater ports capable of loading supertankers. Last October, a vessel carrying 1.6 million barrels of U.S. crude arrived at the Indian port of Paradip, the first of a cumulative order totalling four billion barrels from America.
- The top oil exporters to the European Union are Russia, Norway, Kazakhstan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, all of them shipping by supertanker or pipeline. The U.S. and Iran are accelerating oil exports to the EU, offering high-quality crude and supertanker shipping from tidewater terminals. Due to EU-wide carbon emission restrictions, unrefined bitumen exports from Canada will not be attractive to refiners there.
None of these factors is likely to eclipse current Alberta tar sands/oil sands operations, since the major “legacy” producers like Suncor, Cenovus, and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. long ago secured the capital and bitumen deposits to supply dedicated U.S. refiners. Their production cost per barrel is low enough to remain competitive—for now.
But they do spell doom for the planned one-third increase in tar sands/oil sands output by 2030. That’s why global oil players such as Exxon-Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips, Total S.A., Statoil, and Marathon Oil have recently sold or written off vast Alberta properties while taking billion-dollar hits to their bottom line or asset base.
Charge of the Heavy Oil Brigade
Perversely, this flight by Big Oil players has prompted Alberta and federal politicians into an irrational fight response that defies global oil trends and any sense of fiscal discipline. Call it the Charge of the Heavy Oil Brigade, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Rachel Notley.
Their claim that billions of additional barrels of bitumen will be dug up and exported through 2030 plays well in Alberta, especially with provincial and federal elections coming up in 2019. And the groundless industry boosterism is, of course, endorsed by the companies seeking to build the Keystone XL and Trans Mountain pipelines to carry much more unrefined crude to ocean ports.
Also applauding are the steel companies that would make thousands of kilometres of pipe. The banks that would finance the projects. The labourers who would weld and bolt the pipelines together, or drive the monster trucks and shovels scooping out buckets of tar (for as long as those jobs still exist). And the engineers and production managers who might design and run operations to expand tar sands/oil sands output.
The chorus to make this happen has reached a crescendo. It is ordained with vows about “nation building” and defending provincial honour. Canada’s federal environment minister recently justified exporting more of Alberta’s epochal endowment of black sludge—to fund marine spill safety and future clean energy initiatives!
But noise levels are no substitute for billions of dollars in new project capital put at risk. And defiance can often mask panic. The real test of whether many of those 173 billion barrels of bitumen buried under Alberta muskeg will be shipped to China, India, or Europe is not a political applause meter, but customer contracts. Actual buyers.
In an especially glaring omission, the report Kinder Morgan used at federal hearings to justify foreign bitumen exports via the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion made zero mention of the major oil conduits into China via Russia, Kazakhstan, and Myanmar. Nor did it acknowledge potential competition from U.S shale oil exports. It made scant mention of India as a bitumen importer, and acknowledged that Europe is not a viable customer due to shipping distance from Vancouver.
The Fossils’ Race to the Bottom
Through the haze and the spin, Kinder Morgan faces a stark reality: global oil traders or refiners willing to commit to buying billions of barrels of additional bitumen per year do not exist. For the foreseeable future, they have far better options to buy higher-quality oil at a lower price.
Virtually all the world’s faltering petro-states have gigantic oilfields that are already drilled and tapped—so they can produce for decades just to recoup production costs if they need to, or ramp up production if prices, geopolitical, or unforeseen events warrant.
Saudi Arabia has the largest high-quality oil reserves on the planet, but is fast losing market share in China, India, and Europe because rivals are now selling comparable quality oil on better terms. Those rivals include Russia, Iran, Iraq, Norway, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Libya, Algeria, Angola, other Persian Gulf suppliers, and most recently, the U.S.
Moreover, highly indebted petro-states like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela are so desperate for cash flows that they’re lowballing oil supply bids, just to keep revenues rolling in. Or building subsidized, dedicated pipelines to cut out rival suppliers. Or taking losses on shipping costs. Or taking payments in weak currencies they would not touch in better times.
The recent advent of U.S. shale oil production has magnified these maladies, even for petro-states with the biggest and best oil reserves, tidewater ports, and supertanker fleets. Selling billions of barrels per year just to preserve cash flows earns only profitless prosperity. Those that are selling oil profitably, such as American shale and North Sea oil producers, are the exception.
Elsewhere, things are getting weirdly desperate. In a sign of the times, the Saudi royal family has taken to putting hapless fellow billionaires under arrest (albeit in palatial prisons), then granting their release after huge shakedown payments are made. Venezuela is flogging barrels of dirty crude (similar to that from tar sands/oil sands) while its petro-currency crumbles and the government resorts to a state-sponsored cryptocurrency gambit. A dwindling pool of customers is being invited to choose its payment poison.
The extreme price war tactics confronting Alberta tar sands/oil sands producers explain the recent exodus of oil majors there. Almost overnight, countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia have become ruthless global rivals. As Notley has lamented, America has changed from Alberta’s biggest oil customer to its biggest competitor. Now, those competitors are everywhere.
The Looming End of Extreme Oil
But the biggest existential threat to the “incumbent” oil and gas industry comes from new, fundamentally disruptive changes that are overthrowing the basic assumptions and business models behind fossil fuel production. One of them may well be the ascent of the electric car.
This may seem fanciful while gasoline and diesel vehicles account for 99% of global auto sales. But big changes are coming, perhaps at lightning speed.
China, France and the United Kingdom have announced that new sales of gas and diesel cars will be banned as of 2040.
Germany is poised to ban future diesel car sales soon, though its powerful auto industry is digging in for a fight.
California, with a population comparable to Canada’s and touting itself as the world’s sixth-largest economy, has mandated fuel economy and emission regulations far tighter than the U.S. norm, set EV quotas for carmakers, introduced EV purchase incentives, and instructed electric utilities to build an extensive, EV charging network across the Golden State.
Many of the major global auto manufacturers are now poised to become EV avatars. Volvo will soon sell nothing but electric drive models. Volkswagen, the world’s biggest automaker by sales, is partially atoning for its “dieselgate” disgrace by committing US$25 billion, its engineering acumen, plant retooling, and supply chain lock-ups for an impressive global array of electric cars due to appear after 2020.
In a surprise to many observers of the Detroit Three automakers, high sales of the all-electric Chevy Bolt have prompted GM to ramp up U.S. production, while the Nissan Leaf remains the world’s top-selling EV. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche, and even Jaguar are now in the rear-view mirror of all-electric pioneer Tesla. Mitsubishi, Kia, and Hyundai offer all-electric or plug-in models.
The single trend in itself is not enough to give global oil producers nightmares. The real threat is the accelerating convergence of carbon regulations and pricing, rising EV battery ranges and lower costs, the inevitable death of diesel as an auto fuel in Europe, North America, and China, and the advent of renewable-powered EVs as two-way consumers and suppliers of grid power and resilience.
Follow the Money
How credible is this forecast? Follow the money. Last year, for the first time, global investments in new renewable energy projects exceeded investments in fossil fuel projects.
In most cases, these mega-billion-dollar investment bets have been placed in traditionally separate spheres (electric utilities versus oil deposits, gas fields, pipelines, and refineries). But now, those lines are vanishing. Wind parks and solar farms from Texas to India are now cheaper on a life-cycle basis than existing coal plants, or new natural gas plants. Last year alone, the world installed nearly 100,000 megawatts of new solar power capacity. Global wind power has also been growing because it is cheaper and more reliable than the fossil competition, and has no risk of carbon penalties.
Until now, the variability of sunshine and wind has been a crippling constraint. But recent innovations and cost reductions in companion battery storage technology, helped along by EV innovations and scaled-up manufacturing, have turned that drawback into an asset. Now huge battery “farms”, built in mere months, silently store surplus power in Australia, Hawaii, and California for the instant it is needed. Last month, Electrek identified Tesla as one of the bidders on a battery system in Colorado that would be the world’s largest…at least for a little while.
Soon, fleets of idle EVs (such as taxis, airport rentals, or vehicles at car dealerships or in vast entry port yards) will replicate that model by plugging into local grids, earning income by selling reliability and stability back to utility operators. In fact, electric utilities in California and other states are even offering residential customers a $10,000 bonus to buy a qualifying new EV and sign a buy-and-sell services contract.
One Slingshot. Two Goliaths. Three Stones.
These seismic shifts position the vast U.S electric grid as yet another mortal enemy of Alberta’s tar sands/oil sands, selling electrons that displace gasoline. This continental mobility market is big beyond belief, latently lucrative, and thus ripe for a hostile takeover. American cars collectively burn about 400 million gallons of gasoline each day, at a current daily pump value of US$1 billion.
So as North America’s electricity grids get a radical green makeover via solar, wind, and storage, coal plant emissions and extreme oil production can both be wiped out with the same clean electrons. One slingshot. Two goliaths. Three stones.
None of this will happen without putting hundreds of billions in global investment capital at risk. Elon Musk and Tesla are a leading example of mission-driven innovation and entrepreneurship. Perhaps Musk has dared too much, too fast, and he may ultimately fail for lack of fiscal discipline and focus. But whether he wins or loses, he has ignited an unstoppable, accelerating convergence of electric mobility, green power, and battery technology which is now attracting billions in investment capital away from fossil fuel projects and uses.
Nowhere is the transition more obvious than in China and India, two of Alberta’s prime candidates for tar sands/oil sands exports.
Inspired in part by Musk, and facing lethal urban air pollution levels that effectively assassinate their citizens, the leaders of both rapidly-developing countries have demanded revolutionary results in solar, wind, EV production, and advanced battery performance. The largest banks, investor pools, carmakers, and engineering companies have been both compelled and compensated to retool their countries.
India is building some of the biggest, cheapest solar farms in the world, and cancelling new coal plants. Wind plants are now being built by the country’s biggest construction conglomerate, and EVs by its largest carmaker.
China and India are now poised to leapfrog North America and Europe in arriving at, and surviving in, a carbon-constrained future. All without a single additional barrel of bitumen. Like Alberta’s most famous hockey hero, Wayne Gretzky, their game plan is not to chase the puck where it is—but to move to where it’s going to be.
Paul McKay is an award-winning investigative reporter and author. His reports have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Vancouver Sun. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.