ANALYSIS: Rail supply of brent crude offers Canada a pipeline to the future

Updated 25 November 2018
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ANALYSIS: Rail supply of brent crude offers Canada a pipeline to the future

Faisal Mrza RIYADH: Crude oil prices continued their downward fall last week, reaching their lowest level in more than a year, almost 30 percent lower than in last October. Brent crude ended the week at $58.80 per barrel and WTI fell to $50.42.
The steep slide started in early November from oversupply concerns that put bearish pressures on market sentiments. A worldwide glut is the major concern for futures, while the prompt physical market is balanced.
The real physical supply concern must be focused on the pipeline constraints that weigh on Canadian heavy crude. The Western Canadian Select (WCS) benchmark dipped to a record low last week, down to $11 per barrel, with pipeline demand far over capacity. This is the lowest since the financial crisis of 2008.
Although Canada has 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, 95 percent of these reserves are heavy unconventional oil in the Canadian Oil Sands, located in the province of Alberta in the west.
Due to a geographical infrastructure imbalance, the capacity of the Canadian refineries, which reaches about 1.9 million barrels per day, is mostly located in the east.
In fact, the Canadians import oil to supply their eastern refineries. Therefore, Canada cannot take full benefit from its oil sands. It exports nearly all its oil production to the US at a steep discount. Due to the lack of appropriate infrastructure, the loss to the Canadian economy stands at $80 million per day.
Output from Canada’s oil sands is far beyond pipeline capacity to its US markets. Two pipeline projects that should have helped are still tied up in legal proceedings. The TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to begin near Hardisty, Alberta, Canada and end in Steele City, Nebraska, US. It would have the capacity to deliver up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day. On Nov. 8, a US court issued an order blocking construction until an additional environmental review is conducted.
The existing Trans Mountain pipeline carries 300,000 barrels of crude and refined oil per day from Alberta to the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. Construction was supposed to begin this year on a 590,000-barrel expansion to the pipeline. However, in August 2018, on the same day that approval came for the pipeline to be sold to the Canadian government, an ongoing court battle blocked the permit for the pipeline expansion.
With pipelines over capacity, Canadian producers are moving their crude oil by rail. Crude-by-rail loadings at monitored terminals in Western Canada reached a record high monthly average of 274,000 barrels per day in October, according to Genscape Inc. data. This is more than double a year ago. The situation is dire. For the week ending Nov. 9, crude inventories at five monitored terminals in Western Canada reached 34.2 million barrels. The discount on Canadian crude is so high that some US refineries are reselling the oil outright rather than processing it.
The Canadian government is working on a deal to buy trains to move an additional 120,000 to 140,000 barrels of crude per day. Shipping crude by rail has its detractors, however. Opponents of the practice call the transportation method “bomb trains,” and claim that spills and deaths are inevitable when crude-by-rail shipments increase. As oil takes over the railways, overall shipping costs go up as capacity is strained. Pressure builds on the rail network, resulting in shipping delays for other goods. And Canadian production will continue to rise. Imperial Oil will move forward with construction of its $2 billion Aspen project in northern Alberta. The 75,000 barrel per day project is expected to begin producing in 2022.
The oil industry had hoped that well-maintained pipelines would last forever. A major spill from the Enbridge pipeline in 2010 showed that even with excellent maintenance and surveillance, it is difficult to keep pipelines running incident free. More than 40 percent of US oil pipelines were built in the 1950s and 1960s. In Alberta, at least 40 percent of the pipeline network was built before 1990.
Corrosion is a major issue. Pipeline companies fight rust corrosion through the use of coatings and cathodic protection. But with time, all coatings fail, and the level of expenditure increases for inspection and maintenance to keep pipelines intact. When downtime on the pipelines is required for maintenance, this disrupts crude oil flows.
For now, Canada will move forward with the expansion of crude oil rail shipments. A study from Carnegie Mellon University found that the environmental and health costs of transporting oil by rail are double the cost by pipeline. But with Alberta desperate to relieve the pressure on oil storage in the province, it is certain that for the foreseeable future rail shipments of Canadian crude are the only option.

Faisal Mrza is an energy and oil marketing consultant. He was formerly with OPEC and Saudi Aramco. He is the president of #Faisal_Mrza Consulting. Twitter: @faisalmrza


Libya’s National Oil against paying ‘ransom’ to reopen El Sharara field

Updated 14 December 2018
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Libya’s National Oil against paying ‘ransom’ to reopen El Sharara field

  • Ransom payment would set dangerous precedent
  • NOC declared force majeure on exports on Monday

BENGHAZI: Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corp. (NOC) said it was against paying a ransom to an armed group that has halted crude production at the country’s largest oilfield.
“Any attempt to pay a ransom to the armed militia which shut down El Sharara (oilfield) would set a dangerous precedent that would threaten the recovery of the Libyan economy,” NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla said in a statement on the company’s website.
NOC on Monday declared force majeure on exports from the 315,000-barrels-per-day oilfield after it was seized at the weekend by a local militia group.
The nearby El-Feel oilfield, which uses the same power supply as El Sharara, was still producing normally, a spokesman for NOC said, without giving an output figure. The field usually pumps around 70,000 bpd.
Since 2013 Libya has faced a wave of blockages of oilfields and export terminals by armed groups and civilians trying to press the country’s weak state into concessions.
Officials have tended to end such action by paying off protesters who demand to be added to the public payroll.
At El Sharara, in southern Libya, a mix of state-paid guards, civilians and tribesmen have occupied the field, camping there since Saturday, protesters and oil workers said. The protesters work in shifts, with some going home at night.
NOC has evacuated some staff by plane, engineers at the oilfield said. A number of sub-stations away from the main field have been vacated and equipment removed.
The occupiers are divided, with members of the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) indicating they would end the blockade in return for a quick cash payment, oil workers say. The PFG has demanded more men be added to the public payroll.
The tribesmen have asked for long-term development funds, which might take time.
Libya is run by two competing, weak governments. Armed groups, tribesmen and normal Libyans tend to vent their anger about high inflation and a lack of infrastructure on the NOC, which they see as a cash cow booking billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues annually.