Canada: The Next Oil Superpower?

April 22, 2014 Topic: Security Region: Canada

Canada: The Next Oil Superpower?

Forget Keystone XL—Canada has bigger dreams. But can Ottawa pull it off?


The Obama administration’s decision Friday, April 18 to delay yet again its final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline shows the project may be too hot to handle politically. The irony, however, is that it’s hardly the most important pipeline battle in North America. Six other pipelines are being planned in Canada that collectively—and in some cases individually—have much higher stakes for international energy markets and the environment.

Like the Keystone XL, Canada’s proposed projects are intended to deliver to market oil produced in Alberta's tar sands. If all six were built, they would carry roughly 3.2 million barrels per day, four times the volume of Keystone XL. Fierce public debates are ongoing in Canada about these projects, yet with little attention in the United States because many of the issues are framed differently than south of the border.


It seems improbable that all these projects will get approved, but several appear highly likely to move forward in the coming years. Even two or three could transform Canada from a mere regional actor—a supplier of crude almost exclusively to the United States—to a significant player in oil geopolitics.

Canada’s unique brand of pipeline politics is driven by its strategic need to find new customers in Europe and Asia. Fully 97 percent of Canada’s oil exports go to the United States, where crude prices have been depressed by the U.S. shale-oil boom. As a result, Canada needs to sell on global markets, where the benchmark Brent crude typically sells far higher than the U.S. benchmark, West Texas Intermediate.

“There is a very real cost to Canada being linked to the United States and not to tidewater, to the global energy markets,” said Carl Kirst, an energy industry analyst at BMO Capital Markets in Houston. “Canada has a strategic necessity to diversify away from the U.S. … There’s no other developed nation whose most valued product is linked to just one customer.”

The new pipeline projects are intended to break this logjam and push Canada onto the world stage. Whether Canada is ready for the challenge is unclear, but a fundamental shift appears to be underway.

The pipeline proposals are strongly supported by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a conservative. But the main opposition party, the left-of-center New Democrats (NDP), has unexpectedly thrown its backing behind the largest pipeline project. The NDP opposes both the Keystone XL as well as the Northern Gateway pipeline from the tar sands to the British Columbia coast, not primarily because of environmental concerns but because of the fact that they would export raw crude instead of value-added refined products. But the NDP supports the Energy East, a 2,730-mile pipeline that would send tar sands crude to refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick. The new supply would substitute for imported Middle East crude, and the refined products and some unrefined crude would be sent to both domestic and export markets.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has cast Energy East in nationalistic, lunch-bucket terms:

“When we talk about sustainable development of our resources in Canada, we talk first and foremost about adding the value here, including the jobs. Keystone XL represents the export of 40,000 Canadian jobs. So as a matter of principle, we’re saying, since that bitumen is moving anyway, move it in Canada, create 40,000 jobs here, get a better price for the producers, more royalties for the producing provinces—oh, and by the way, take care of Canada’s energy security.”

(...) “As a matter of principle between something like Keystone XL, which as far as we’re concerned is a big mistake, and west-east, west-east is a better alternative. We’ve got to move away from the traditional Canadian tendency to simply rip and ship and not add value here. Value-added jobs are the way to go.”

Leading the opposition to the pipelines is yet another faction that has no political equivalent south of the border—First Nations tribes. In contrast to the United States, where the last Native American claims to territorial sovereignty were officially relinquished in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, many British Columbia tribes have never signed peace treaties with Ottawa recognizing Canadian sovereignty over their lands. Under a diffuse body of Canadian and international law, these First Nations thus enjoy the right to “consultation” over projects in their historic territory. Whether this gives the tribes full veto power over the pipelines is highly disputed, but the matter is likely to become a multi-year legal struggle that is finally decided by Canada’s Supreme Court.

“There’s an unbroken wall of First Nations along the B.C. border, saying, ‘we will not allow these pipelines to get built,’” said Robyn Allan, an economist in Vancouver. “They are hanging lot of their strategy on international law on aboriginal rights, which is a powerful tool for them in Canadian courts.”

Northern Gateway, which would send tar sands crude to a port at Kitimat, B.C., for shipment to China and other Asian customers, has received preliminary approval from the National Energy Board, a federal review panel, with final approval from Prime Minister Harper expected soon. But because of the First Nations opposition, Canada’s conventional wisdom is that construction won’t begin for years to come, if ever.

The depth of local opposition to Northern Gateway was shown April 12 in the port town of Kitimat, site of the pipeline’s terminus, when 60 percent voted in a nonbinding referendum to oppose the project.

In contrast to the B.C. tribes, all First Nations on routes east of Alberta have signed land treaties and thus enjoy much less legal clout, so most are simply angling for a profitable piece of the pipeline action.

Alberta Clipper, Line 9 and Line 3 have received the prime minister’s approval and face no significant First Nations opposition. Although Alberta Clipper is still awaiting State Department environmental review (at a level legally less rigorous than the Keystone XL process), all these pipelines are expected to become realities within the next few years.

Robyn Allan, the Vancouver economist, says the opposition to Keystone XL and the two British Columbia pipelines means Energy East is increasingly likely to succeed.

“Energy East actually may be the easiest to get through,” she said. “Energy East poses the unanswered question that has been with us for decades—when we are a net energy producer, why does eastern Canada depend on foreign imports? Why not ship the crude to the east coast, stop importing oil from the Middle East, and export only value added refined products?”

While some experts debate the impact of the Canadian pipelines for the Keystone XL, the result for global oil diplomacy seems clearer: According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, tar sands production will rise from 1.8 million barrels per day in 2012 to 5.2 million barrels per day in 2030, much of which would be exported. Canada would thus go on par with oil exporters such as Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Iraq.

Canadian officials have speculated that the new pipelines could help the Baltics nations and Ukraine reduce their dependence on Russian supplies, thus weakening President Vladimir Putin. But this is mostly hype, analysts say. For natural gas, Canada has no LNG export terminals on its Atlantic coast and none are in the works. For oil, most refined products are expected to stay in Canada, while Western European refineries are configured for Russian and Middle Eastern light blends rather than the extra heavy crude from Canada’s tar sands.

“If Energy East is built, any unrefined crude that’s exported probably won’t go to Western Europe, because they need lighter crudes,” said Judith Dwarkin, director of energy research at ITG Investment Research in Calgary. “It will go farther east, to Greece and Turkey, to the Persian Gulf, or India or China, where refineries are more oriented toward heavy crude.”

Because of the enormity of global oil markets, the impact of a few million barrels per day of Canadian oil being sent hither or yon will have little effect on prices or availability in New York, Kiev or Beijing. The main impact will be diplomatic, with Canada enjoying new ability to reward friends and punish enemies. Some Canadians hope this impact could be a route finder for Canada’s own foreign policy alignment. From the perspective of the NDP and others, the pipeline surge offers a two-sided opportunity for Canada to gain real independence from Washington. By breaking its pipeline dependency on U.S. markets, Canada would gain new freedom to find a separate identity.

As advocated by the NDP and others, a second opportunity is to focus on refining the crude at home and exporting the higher-value-added refined products. Whether that will happen is unclear. The two British Columbia pipelines would export crude only, turning Canada into a raw materials supplier for China rather than for Uncle Sam—hardly an improvement, many Canadians say. In fact, despite the cynically anti-Chinese rhetoric of some Keystone XL opponents, the Northern Gateway and TransMountain pipelines are the real China export gambit, on a much larger scale. The Keystone XL would mainly supply export markets in the Caribbean and Latin America, replacing declining exports from Venezuela and Mexico.