canada oil consumption and change

  • In addition to its impact on global oil and natural gas pricing and trade, the shale revolution is altering the energy relationship between the US and Canada.
  • This long-standing supplier/customer relationship is becoming more complex as producers in both countries seek new markets outside North America.

In remarks last month the Canadian Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, suggested that with the continued growth of unconventional oil production in the US, "Our only customer will become a competitor." Considering plans for liquefied natural gas export facilities on both sides of the border, he might have included LNG in that comment, too. Let's take a look at the kind of competition he might have had in mind.

Canada has long been an important supplier of crude oil to US refineries, since at least the 1950s. For much of the 1980s and '90s it was in a virtual three-way tie with Mexico and Venezuela for the #2 spot on the list of top oil exporters to the US, behind Saudi Arabia. Since 2004 Canada has claimed first place on that list as its production expanded, while Mexican and Venezuelan output declined and some Saudi oil went to other markets. From 2010 to 2012 exports of Canadian crude oil to the US, including oil sands crude, increased by 23% to over 2.4 million barrels per day (bpd). This has provided Canada with a reliable outlet for its production and the US with additional supplies not exposed--except for price--to ongoing instability in the Middle East and other regions.

However, with or without the Keystone XL Pipeline, the competition to feed US refineries is becoming more intense.  Canada's growing crude exports, including significant quantities of heavy and/or sour crude oil, must displace similar crudes imported into the US from  Latin America and the Middle East without losing ground to the expanded light oil production from US shale plays such as the Bakken and Eagle Ford, and the otherwise mature Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico. Each of these areas now yields a million bpd. These dynamics are compounded by 1970s-vintage US oil-export rules that keep domestic crude bottled up in the Gulf Coast and weaken the economics of oil production throughout much of North America. 

If it seems odd for a Canadian official to talk about competition within the US market in this way, consider that the main country exempted from current US oil export restrictions is Canada. US oil exports to eastern Canada by rail and by tanker have grown rapidly in the last two years and are likely to expand beyond the current 100,000 bpd level, if export license applications are any indication. US oil exports to Canada may be displacing non-North American crudes today, but they likely also have an adverse effect on the economics of projects intended to ship more western Canadian crude eastward. So Canada now understandably looks towards Asia, home to the world's fastest oil-demand growth, as the logical destination for at least some of its future oil production.

 Natural gas creates another, perhaps more plausible arena for export competition between Canada and the US. Canada envisions a resurgence in gas production similar to what the US has experienced, based on a combination of conventional gas discoveries, such as in the Mackenzie Delta of the Northwest Territories, as well as the shales of Alberta and British Columbia. It also stands to gain additional gas reserves if it is successful in its bid to claim more of the Arctic. As Canadian gas is displaced from its long-standing export market in the US by the shale boom in the lower-48, LNG exports from B.C. are looking more attractive. The province lists five projects in different stages of development and highlights B.C.'s advantageous shipping route to Asia.

Many more LNG export projects have been proposed for the US, with at least four having received approval to sell to countries with which the US does not have free-trade agreements. A number of these are based on existing, or at least previously permitted, LNG import facilities, giving developers a head-start on construction. The US also has a big edge in proved natural gas reserves and technically recoverable gas resources, including shale gas.

Despite these US advantages, aspiring Canadian LNG exporters won't have to contend with an enormous domestic market for their gas, in which many industries are competing to use more gas in power generation, chemicals and other manufacturing, and different paths for displacing oil from transportation, including CNG, LNG, methanol, ethanol or gas-to-liquids fuels. As a result, I suspect that a Canadian LNG plant could count on a more stable long-term cost of gas than one on the US Gulf Coast.

The protracted controversy over the Keystone XL Pipeline project has focused a great deal of public attention on a single aspect of our energy relationship with Canada, while obscuring other aspects that are beginning to shift. Adding a new competitive overlay to our long-standing energy supply chains could ultimately increase North American leverage on OPEC's pricing power, while helping to develop a deeper and more flexible global market for LNG, with resulting environmental benefits. While this might result in winners and losers at the project and company level, the overall effect should be positive for both countries.

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Photo Credit: Canada and Competition/shutterstock