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Why Canada still needs the Trans Mountain expansion

Construction matting Trans Mountain pipeline

Construction matting along the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion route. Photo courtesy Trans Mountain Corporation

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The case for the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion remains strong as oil demand is on its way to a new record high, according to industry analysts.

Following nearly two years of world consumption exceeding supply, global oil demand is expected to reach a first-ever 101.6 million barrels per day in 2023, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA projects that global oil demand will rise to 103 million barrels per day in 2030 and stay at that level through 2050.

The Trans Mountain expansion, now expected to be complete in late 2023, will help meet continued strong world oil use, benefiting Canadians in the process.

“The basis is always the same for me, as it’s been for many years now – that [Trans Mountain expansion] gets Canadian oil to Asia. And by getting to Asia, you’re getting premium pricing,” says Phil Skolnick, New York-based analyst with Eight Capital.

“From the perspective of what it can do for increased revenues coming out of the oil sands and for Canadian oil, it makes a lot of sense.”

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Trans Mountain, which has been operating since 1953, is Canada’s only direct access to global oil markets outside the United States. For the last decade it has been overbooked on a regular basis as producers seek more room on the pipeline than is available to ship oil to customers.

The expansion will result in higher revenues for producers and the Canadian government because global customers will pay more for Canadian oil, says B.C.-based environmental scientist Blair King.

“It is simply getting paid more for the same product because you can now get it to a market that values it more,” King says. “It is pure cream which requires no further effort once the pipeline is built.”

According to Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), an increase of US$5 per barrel for Canadian heavy oil would add C$6 billion to Canada’s economy over the course of one year.

Skolnick says that on the global market, the Canadian heavy oil grade called Western Canadian Select (WCS) is comparable to Middle East stream Dubai Fateh medium heavy. In April 2022, Dubai Fateh sold for an average of US$102.68 per barrel, nearly US$14 per barrel more than WCS.

Asia represents the biggest potential opportunity for Canadian heavy oil exported through the expanded Trans Mountain pipeline, Skolnick says.

“It’s just an open market; a lot is brand new, and it’s continuing to grow with India and the (petrochemical) industry in parts of Asia, including China,” he says.

For example, Saudi Aramco and two partners are proceeding with a new 300,000-barrel-per-day refining and petrochemical facility in northeast China, to commence operations in 2024.

“These are hundreds of thousands of barrels a day type projects in terms of what they consume, and they consume a lot of medium and heavy oil. That’s the market that you want to get to,” Skolnick says.

“Ultimately, you want to have to have market diversification by getting to the West Coast.”

Canada’s oil producers remain committed to the Trans Mountain expansion despite an increase in the projected cost to $21.4 billion from a previous $12.6 billion.

A new PBO report says cancelling the project would result in a significant loss to the federal government, forcing a writeoff of $14.4 billion in assets.

“We believe the business case for this pipeline remains sound,” Cenovus Energy CEO Alex Pourbaix said earlier this year. “Getting this pipeline built will provide a significant boost to the Canadian economy while helping to solidify investor confidence in our oil and gas industry.”

Canada’s federal government, which owns the Trans Mountain Pipeline, expects to announce later this year the next steps in its discussions with Indigenous communities seeking an ownership stake in the project.

So far, the expansion has signed agreements worth more than $580 million with 69 Indigenous communities. The project has awarded more than $3.2 billion in contracts to Indigenous businesses and employed approximately 2,500 Indigenous workers.

Suncor Energy CEO Mark Little said earlier this year that the 2021 floods in B.C. are a reminder of how critical the pipeline is to security of energy supply and access to global markets.

“While, like everyone, we are disappointed in the increased costs and schedule of the Trans Mountain project, we remain fully supportive of this world-class infrastructure project which is vital to Canada’s long-term economic success and energy security.”

Deborah Jaremko is director of content for the Canadian Energy Centre, an Alberta government corporation funded in part by taxes paid by industry on carbon emissions.

Deborah is a Troy Media contributor. For interview requests, click here.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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