With world oil prices heading toward another crash, the swashbuckling free marketeers in Canada’s oilpatch are doing exactly what you would expect: amping up the pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley to somehow, magically solve a complex cluster of problems that is ultimately beyond Canadian governments’ control.
The fossil execs and their financiers say they’re losing patience with the federal government. Warning of a new wave of western Canadian separatism. Accusing-not accusing Ottawa of treason. Even risking the appearance of insider trading by participating in a meeting with Notley to discuss production volumes.
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It brings to mind a great line from Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, speaking to the Ottawa Mayors’ Breakfast at the height of the fight over the proposed Energy East pipeline in 2016. “We can’t control the world price of oil,” acknowledged Nenshi, an avowed supporter of the project. “Many people in Alberta seem to think Premier Notley sets it every morning. She doesn’t. The Prime Minister does.” (Pro tip: He was kidding, and the comment got a good laugh.)
Nearly three years later, Canadian fossils seem to have forgotten both the humour and the truth in Nenshi’s comment. The grade of oil that Alberta sells into world markets, Western Canadian Select, hit a rock-bottom price of US$13.46 per barrel on Thursday, its lowest since Bloomberg began keeping track in 2008. They’re producing at a loss, and they want a solution right now. And they imagine that faster federal action to approve the intensely controversial Trans Mountain pipeline extension—a project that would be years away from delivering an ounce of heavy crude if construction restarted tomorrow—will somehow give them relief from today’s problem.
They also imagine that they have anything less than the federal government’s full-throated support.
That’s after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet bought them a C$13.8-billion pipeline, graciously postponed regulations to control the industry’s climate-busting methane emissions despite alarming new research on their total output, pays out fossil subsidies estimated at $3.3 billion per year by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and $46 billion by the notoriously radical International Monetary Fund, posted the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any G20 country, and incurred the shame, to be frank, of being named one of the three countries whose climate policies would put the world on track to more than 5.0°C average global warming if every other government followed their civilization-ending example.
They still seem convinced that Ottawa could speed up a pipeline it fully intends to approve after a new round of regulatory review, even though a court told them in no uncertain terms that a faster process violated Canadian law.
But none of that is nearly enough for any self-respecting, free market fossil.
“Globally, we’ve politicized energy so much,” said Peyto Exploration and Development CEO Darren Gee, with environmental and regulatory scrutiny of the Trans Mountain and Keystone XL pipelines adding “entire layer of risk that people just don’t know how to assess.”
Gee actually claimed the federal government has “absolutely no interest in having that pipeline built or expanding this basin,” adding that “I’m quite afraid that we’re going to see a separatist agenda in the west and a lot of separatist movement because of the energy industry. I’m afraid for Canada for that reason,”
“As a Canadian, I’m offended by what’s going on,” said Total Energy Services CEO Daniel Halyk. “We’re selling our resources for pennies on the dollar.”
“It’s mystifying to me why there still doesn’t seem to be action taken,” said Eric Nuttall, Toronto-based senior portfolio manager with Ninepoint Partners. “It’s borderline treasonous.”
Investment managers are warning that the flow of international finance into Canada’s oil and gas sector is drying up.
And fossils are turning on each other. Earlier this month, two of Canada’s biggest tar sands/oil sands producers—Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and Cenovus Energy—criticized other big industry players for taking “windfall profits” by using up more than their share of the country’s available pipeline space. (Once again…free market much?)
“Clearly some parties, who capture windfall revenues at the expense of Alberta citizens and Alberta producers, are determined to continue to capture windfall revenues,” CNRL President Tim McKay told an investors’ call.
“At the price that Albertans are getting for their oil, no one is making any money whatsoever in the upstream industry,” agreed Cenovus CEO Alex Pourbaix, in an interview last week with Bloomberg. “At the same time, a number of producers who are integrated with refineries are making windfall profits.”
On October 22, fossil executives gathered for a private meeting chaired by Notley, aiming to avert a sustained price crisis that would “cost government coffers billions while kneecapping the oil sector,” Bloomberg reports. “What we’re trying to do is see the government take very moderate action in terms of production levels in order to avoid an economic catastrophe,” Pourbaix said. Upstream producers proposed a 10% production cut that would last three to six months.
“The gathering was so unusual that Suncor’s representative, Chief Operating Officer Mark Little, began by warning the meeting itself might violate Canadian competition law if it amounted to price-fixing,” Bloomberg reports, citing three people who were present. “Notley said government action was the focus and discussions continued, those people said.”
None of the commentary acknowledged the basic science of Canadian tar sands/oil sands production—that for all its effort to improve its technologies and boost efficiency, often at the expense of the fossil work force, the industry is working with a tarry, hard-to-manage product that costs refineries more to process. (Geology. That isn’t Justin Trudeau’s fault, but maybe someone can blame his father?)
And while the recent flurry of industry commentary acknowledges the latest global price crash in passing, it’s silent on the underlying dynamics driving that market—surging shale oil production in the United States, enabled in part by Donald Trump’s manic push for world fossil energy “dominance”, political positioning around U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports, and uncertainty over production cuts that OPEC and Russia will be discussing when they meet in Vienna December 6.
At least by excluding these factors from their narrative, Canadian fossils leave the impression that Trudeau and his cabinet can sweep away a set of complex, deep-seated market influences with a flick of their collective wrist. Or that approving an unneeded, widely reviled pipeline expansion will shift the industry’s immediate prospects, years before the line goes into service. Their basic problem is that investors, at least some investors, know better, and are beginning to “flee a market hammered by swelling supplies and a darkening demand outlook,” Bloomberg reported last week.
And demand is actually an important part of the picture. If any new pipelines are ever built, they’ll run headlong into new competition from a source its planners would never have imagined when they first began mapping the routes for the Trans Mountain expansion and Keystone.
With interest in electric vehicles surging and battery storage costs falling fast, Bloomberg has been projecting some time that a shift in transportation patterns could trigger the next oil price crash, while Stanford University futurist Tony Seba sees EVs forcing the collapse of internal combustion cars by 2025. That’s not a force Canadian fossils or the federal government control, either. Rather than buying up a leaky, 65-year-old pipeline with no prospects for future success, there’s a $26-trillion opportunity out there that the Trudeau government—and the sharp business operators in Canada’s oilpatch—should be going after instead.