For Sale: Stalled Pipeline Project, Protesters Included

(Bloomberg) -- Justin Trudeau’s pipeline nightmare may be only getting started.

As Kinder Morgan Inc. drives a hard bargain in Canada’s attempt to save the Houston-based company’s embattled Trans Mountain project, the prime minister could end up fighting for an asset that hardly anybody wants. Pipeline giant Enbridge Inc., for one, signaled it doesn’t.

For Sale: Stalled Pipeline Project, Protesters Included

Trudeau’s government upped the ante this week, with Finance Minister Bill Morneau pledging to indemnify the C$7.4 billion ($5.8 billion) project for politically motivated delays and backstop any company willing to take it on. Trudeau said “there are alternatives if Kinder Morgan” decides it wants out.

Alberta’s oil sands are a crucial part of Canada’s economy and the expanded pipeline to British Columbia’s shore could help get better prices for the country’s crude in Asia. But finding an alternative investor in the face of fierce opposition in the coastal province would be easier said than done, according to Jihad Traya, manager of strategic energy advisory services for HSB Solomon Associates LLC in Calgary.

“I’m a little perplexed,” Traya said, adding that any attempt to sell the project would be very cumbersome. “So, what part are they going to take over? The expansion? And then, that creates some very interesting intra-agency issues.”

Lukewarm Response

Kinder, which is set to decide by the end of the month whether to abandon the project because of the heated political battle over its construction, was lukewarm in its response to Morneau’s public comment as talks with the government continue. Chief Executive Officer Steve Kean said that “while the discussions are ongoing, we are not yet in alignment and will not negotiate in public.”

For Sale: Stalled Pipeline Project, Protesters Included

Enbridge Inc., North America’s biggest crude pipelines operator, said that it wasn’t currently interested in the line.

“We are not engaged in conversations about buying the Trans Mountain Pipeline or taking over the project as operator,” spokeswoman Suzanne Wilton said in an email.

TransCanada Corp. and Kinder’s Canadian unit didn’t return messages seeking comment. Pembina Pipeline Corp. declined to comment.

“I can’t imagine some other company stepping in and taking those same risks without a financial backstop,” said David Galison, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity Corp. “Enbridge shareholders would be in revolt if they took on a project with that much risk.”

The alternative would be for a government-owned or -funded entity to take over the project and hire the expertise needed to build the line, which would be costly, Galison said. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has said her government would be willing to pursue a stake purchase, and Morneau has said that possibility is on the table.

For Sale: Stalled Pipeline Project, Protesters Included

The existing Trans Mountain line has been operating since the 1950s, carrying as much as 300,000 barrels a day of oil and refined fuels from Alberta to the Vancouver area, where it connects with a line carrying crude to refineries in Washington state. The planned expansion to 890,000 barrels a day could open up exports to growing markets in Asia, lessening Canada’s almost exclusive dependency on the U.S. as a market for its oil.

The assertion that other companies would take over the project makes little sense, according to Robyn Allan, an independent economist in British Columbia who was among the experts that provided input at the National Energy Board’s hearings on Trans Mountain.

“The expansion cannot be hived off from the legacy assets,” because higher tolls on the existing system are supposed to pay for it, she said. “The commercial deal is leveraged off existing assets.”

British Columbia’s efforts to stop Trans Mountain have also brought the province into conflict with its oil-producing neighbor. Notley is implementing the legal framework to allow Alberta to curtail hydrocarbon shipments to British Columbia in retaliation, warning this week she’s ready to “turn off the taps.”

But all the talk that other investors could move the project forward “sounds like hardball,” Wolfe Research analysts Keith Stanley, Steve Fleishman and Harneet Kaur said in a report Wednesday. “We don’t get the vibe that negotiations on TMX solutions are going very well.”

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