Oil producers at home are pocketing higher profits as a rise in world oil prices meshes with an improving supply-demand balance that has reduced the price discounts they faced earlier this year.
Analysts told Canadian Press that temporary shutdowns at Alberta oil sands projects for scheduled maintenance this spring have eased the pipeline congestion that had been exacerbating the difference between bitumen-blend Western Canadian Select and New York-traded West Texas Intermediate crude prices.
That means the oil producers — some of whom cut back output in the first quarter because of poor prices — are seeing benefits from WTI prices that rose to three-and-a-half-year highs above US$71 per barrel this week following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
“The rally in WTI has some fundamental support and is not all related to Iran and Venezuela,” energy analyst Randy Ollenberger of BMO Capital Markets pointed out in an email to Canadian Press. “Demand is clearly improving…. A further drop in Venezuela production is also a real possibility that could provide a further boost to prices.”
Iran is the third-largest producer of crude within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, exporting about 2.6 million barrels per day in April. Prices have risen on speculation that its exports could be interrupted if sanctions are reapplied by the West.
Global oil prices are also being supported by factors including sliding heavy oil production from Venezuela, which is wracked by political instability, and strong adherence to production limits from OPEC and Russia under their 2016 agreement, said Kevin Birn, vice-president of the North American crude oil markets for IHS Markit.
“Western Canadian producers, any higher price is unambiguously good for them,” he told Canadian Press. “The situation on pipelines has temporarily been resolved, primarily because of the upstream outages and (maintenance) turnarounds going on, which is allowing the system to clear… and hopefully allowing time for rail to come in.”
However, uncertainty continues to plague proposed new pipelines.
The Keystone XL project from Alberta to Texas has been delayed, the future of an expanded Trans Mountain line to Vancouver is in doubt and a routing dispute has emerged over Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 export pipeline replacement project.
Birn said the WCS-WTI discount, which closed at US$19.73 on Thursday, narrowed to an average of about US$12 per barrel last year due to demand in North America for heavy oil, but rose quickly after November due to pipeline constraints.
It peaked at about US$30 per barrel in the first quarter.
The discount is expected to return to more typical levels of about US$15 — accounting for the difference in quality versus WTI and transport to market — this spring but will likely rise to US$17-$19 per barrel later in the year because of the higher price of shipping crude by rail, he told Canadian Press.
Ollenberger agreed the discount will rise in the second half of the year, noting that new production from Suncor Energy Inc.’s Fort Hills oil sands mine as it ramps up to its 194,000-barrels-per-day capacity will be added to existing oil sands output as maintenance shutdowns end.