Alberta Expects $1.7 Billion Profit From Crude-by-Rail Plan

(Bloomberg) -- Alberta is preparing a giant crude-by-rail operation to help its oil-sands producers cope with a pipeline crunch, and it expects a big profit from the venture.

The Canadian province, which holds the world’s third-largest crude reserves, plans to net C$2.2 billion ($1.7 billion) after investing C$3.7 billion to lease tank cars and buy service from rail providers, generating C$5.9 billion from sales and increased royalty and tax revenue, according to a statement on Tuesday.

The rail plan is one of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s signature moves to help the province’s oil producers, who have been hurt by pipeline shortages that have made it difficult to ship their crude to refiners on the U.S. Gulf Coast, weighing on prices. The plan also comes after Notley mandated production cuts to ease the strain on shipping capacity and work down a glut of oil that had built up in storage.

Not all oil companies have the capital to invest in crude by rail, Notley said at a press conference Tuesday in explaining why government intervention was necessary.

“That’s why it was important to step up,” she said.

The deal reached with Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. and Canadian National Railway Co. entails leasing 4,400 rail cars over three years, buying crude from the province’s producers, and then shipping the oil to various markets throughout North America. The province expects to generate revenue from the profit it turns on selling crude to refiners, as well as from the higher oil prices that the additional shipping capacity will support.

Key Goals

  • Add 120,000 barrels a day of crude-by-rail capacity over three years
  • Lease 4,400 rail cars for three years
  • Shrink Canadian crude discount by $4 a barrel over two years

Alberta’s investment in rail comes as companies struggle to get new oil pipelines built to get Alberta’s crude to markets even as production rose and pipeline bottlenecks developed, causing heavy Canadian crude’s discount to West Texas Intermediate futures to widen to $50 a barrel in October.

“The investment in crude by rail and the elevation of the amount of crude going by rail comes as a result of successive federal government failings” to get new pipelines approved and built, Notley said Tuesday.

Last year, Canada’s federal government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan Inc. to keep alive a project to expand the only pipeline that carries Alberta’s crude to the Pacific Coast. That project later suffered a setback when a court ruled that the National Energy Board would have to resume regulatory hearings.

The rail service will begin in July with about 20,000 barrels a day before ramping up to its full capacity of 120,000 barrels a day by mid-2020. The province is still in negotiations with potential refiners, but expects to sell to refiners within Canada and along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

“Absolutely no risk” exists in finding markets for the oil and that the oil would displace rail shipments of agricultural and other commodities, Notley said.

Companies including Imperial Oil Ltd. have criticized the government’s intervention in the market, saying the mandatory production curtailments caused the price difference between Canadian crude and competing grades elsewhere to narrow so much that shipping by rail is no longer economic. The discount of Western Canadian Select shrank to less than $7 a barrel last month. Amid the criticism, Notley’s government recently reduced curtailment to 250,000 barrels a day from 325,000 barrels a day and the price discount has since widened to $15 a barrel.

“We anticipate that differentials will get back to rail economics very soon,” she said.

The rail plan has a few differences from the outline Notley provided in a speech in November. The lease of 4,400 rail cars, without buying or leasing locomotives, is less than the 7,000 cars and 80 locomotives originally planned. The lower figure came about through negotiations with the rail lines and more efficient routes, the province said.

“We are confident that this will turn out to be a good business decision for taxpayers,” she said. “The risk is in doing nothing.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.