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Alberta Fossils Aim to Push More Oil Through the Same Pipes

With the three new pipelines they’ve been counting on all delayed, Alberta fossils are looking to at least two new strategies to push more bitumen through the pipes and rail lines they’ve already got, even as two major tar sands/oil sands operators cut back their investment plans for 2020.

This week, Bloomberg reports that companies like Cenovus Energy, Gibson Energy, Imperial Oil, and MEG Energy “are looking to remove condensate and other light oils from the oilsands bitumen they produce, so they can get more of it onto rail cars,” adding that “doing so would dramatically reduce the cost of shipping crude by rail to the U.S. Gulf Coast, which otherwise can cost twice as much as shipping by pipeline.”

Citing Dinara Millington, vice-president of research at the Canadian Energy Research Institute, the news agency states that “removing the light oils, called diluent, would make rail shipments nearly as cost-effective as pipeline exports.”

Bloomberg says Cenovus and Gibson are both working on commercial agreements to build diluent recovery units (DRUs) to prepare their product for rail.

Last month, meanwhile, CBC reported on efforts to “debottleneck” existing pipelines, by either adding new pumping stations to force more product through the same pipe, or adding side-by-side pipeline capacity where the flow is congested. Analyst Ian Gillies, managing director of institutional research at GMP FirstEnergy, said the techniques could boost pipeline capacity by 575,000 barrels of oil per day by the end of 2022.

“This is effectively adding another major pipeline,” he told CBC. “Not all of that has been sanctioned yet and none of it is certain, but we certainly think it will be attractive to producers.”

Over the next two months, Calgary-based pipeliner Enbridge Inc. expects to increase its capacity out of Alberta by 100,000 barrels per day, by optimizing its existing system and taking advantage of the new section of the Line 3 pipeline that just opened between Alberta and Manitoba. It also plans to boost the capacity of its Express pipeline from Alberta to the United States by 50,000 barrels per day.

The projects “require minimal capital, are highly executable, and they generate great return,” said Enbridge CEO Al Monaco. “They are also good for customers as they provide much needed low-cost incremental capacity to the best markets.” CBC also has Calgary-based pipeliner Plains Midstream increasing the capacity of its Rangeland system from Alberta to the U.S. from 20,000 to 100,000 barrels.

“That’s a fairly impressive contribution if they can actually implement this and don’t encounter any unexpected regulatory hurdles,” said former TransCanada Corporation executive Dennis McConaghy.

McConaghy’s former company, now rebranded as TC Energy, was also looking at using “drag-reducing agents” and “optimizing” undamaged sections of its Keystone pipeline to minimize lost capacity after the line spilled more than 1.4 million litres of crude in North Dakota in October. The company made the announcement in mid-November after U.S. regulators allowed it to restart the line—even though it still couldn’t say what caused the spill—but imposed a 20% flow reduction on the section of pipe on either side of  the damaged portion.

TC Energy was also looking at “in-corridor growth” to increase the capacity of its existing pipeline system for both oil and gas.

“That is our competitive advantage,” CEO Russ Girling told investors. “It’s an enviable position to have in a world where demand continues to grow but it is extremely difficult to site new infrastructure.”

In mid-November, days before the news about Enbridge and TC Energy, Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason reacted to the International Energy Agency’s latest projections for future oil and gas demand by asking a provocative question: How many pipelines does Canada really need?

Without even factoring in the industry’s emerging strategies to “debottleneck” existing pipes and ship heavier, denser bitumen by rail, Mason noted that the hotly-contested Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is under construction, Line 3 is almost complete, and Keystone “is expected to resume next year, after being stalled in court.” All told, “that is a ton of extra volume that Alberta is going to have at its disposal pretty soon.” While Mason sees an economic case for Trans Mountain, “there is an awful lot happening on the pipeline front amid a backdrop that is looking increasingly grim for the oil industry,” he writes. So “is there need for another beyond that? For another pipeline to B.C. and a second to the east coast?”

That’s doubtful, he concludes.

Mason inventories the massive, multiple challenges that are permanently driving down demand for fossil fuels—including the IEA projecting 50% growth in renewable energy capacity over the next five years, banks representing US$47 trillion in assets promising to align their investments with the climate goals in the Paris Agreement, and fossil divestment—noting that even Saudi Arabia is signalling its recognition that the industry’s end is approaching.

“Given how long it takes to get a pipeline built in Canada, does it make any sense to be planning more, to be dreaming of something that might not be built for seven, eight, nine years?” he asks. “That might be coming onstream as demand has plateaued or has started to contract at an inexorable rate? Probably not.”