Now that America's presidential race is decided, Canada's need to seek energy markets beyond the U.S. has never been more urgent.
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
The day after America’s presidential election, the Calgary-based Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI) hosted a panel discussion on the political and economic significance of President Obama’s second term.
Some of the most interesting observations came from Jonathan Baron, an American lobbyist with a primarily Republican clientele. “What you need to know about Republicans and Democrats is that they hear different things when they hear the word energy. Say ‘energy’ to a Republican, and he will think about increasing energy production. Say ‘energy’ to a Democrat, and she will think about mitigating environmental impacts. It’s like another world.”
Now he was on a roll. “When a Republican thinks about Canada’s energy resources,” he added, “they really do think that these resources belong to America. There isn’t a strong sense that they are a sovereign asset for Canadians. For Republicans, the idea of North American energy security is a no-brainer.”
The irony is that the International Energy Agency issued its annual report a few days after this panel discussion – a report which seemed to put the cat among the pigeons. According to the IEA, “The global energy map is changing, with potentially far-reaching consequences for energy markets and trade. It is being redrawn by the resurgence in oil and gas production in the United States and could be further reshaped by a retreat from nuclear power in some countries, continued rapid growth in the use of wind and solar technologies and by the global spread of unconventional gas production.” According to this respected agency, the US will become the world’s top oil producer by 2017, and could be nearing energy self-sufficiency two decades later.
A bearish outlook for Canada’s oil producers, is this report worth long-term worry? Probably not. Since the 1972 publication of The Limits to Growth, a book which forecast shortages of virtually every commodity by the end of the 20th Century, a good rule of thumb has been that long-term natural resource forecasts are always wrong.
To a large extent, this is because major forecasts are political. IEA member governments and some oil companies vet them before they go public. In the highly likely case that the United States reviewed the IEA forecast before it hit the streets, they would have wanted the agency’s report to justify fracking, Keystone, perhaps, and the West’s embargo of Iranian oil. As one commentator observed, “Forecasters test scenarios – they assess economic and energy trends to produce numbers. Among the enormous range of possibilities, one forecast is chosen for public purposes.” Also, of course, since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in the 18th century, economies have shown repeatedly that markets eventually equilibrate.
If you focus instead on the near-term implications of the recent US election, there is a lot of good news.
· Before campaigning began, global warming environmentalists developed traction by opposing Keystone. Notwithstanding their public protests, sources Oilweek spoke to believe the project has a good likelihood of getting State Department approval. An okay would increase the integration of Canadian oil and bitumen production into US markets and provide tidewater access to overseas buyers.
· On the gas side, this commodity will expand its market for power generation, and Canadians will perhaps gain an advantage in the export of this commodity overseas.
President Obama’s re-election was a near-term good news story for Canada’s oil patch. If approved, he Keystone Pipeline will move bitumen to the 7.6 million barrel-per-day Gulf Coast market. It is worth remembering that the Department of State originally deferred its decision on the pipeline as a political gesture, so as not to alienate environmentalists during the election. The reason given was concern about a proposed segment of the pipeline route through environmentally sensitive sand hills in Nebraska.
According to Maryscot (“Scotty”) Greenwood, a left-leaning Democrat, “There is awareness in the United States about the importance of energy from Canada and I believe that awareness was heightened during the campaign. There is a renewed appreciation of the importance of North American energy independence.” She is reasonably confident the project will go ahead, using TCPL’s revised route. In a separate interview, AJM Deloitte’s geoscience director Dave Russum enumerated the reasons the State Department might stand behind Keystone: “Job creation, economy boost in the US, secure supply.”
For Canada, the benefits are different. Keystone would provide Canadian oil sands producers with direct access to America’s single biggest oil market. Thus that pipeline’s throughput would not be subject to the price differentials that have become chronic – especially for the oilsands sector. More importantly, the project would provide Canadian producers with access to tidewater. This would mean overseas markets and international prices. Meanwhile “we are in for a rocky time in the Canadian industry regardless of who is in the White House,” according to Russum. “When oil prices were more than $100, many projects looked pretty attractive, but current prices in the $85 range make the economics much less robust.”
Carbon emissions kept coming up during the CDFAI forum, and Greenwood stressed the political importance of the environmental constituency. “During the second term of the Obama administration (president Obama) has an imperative to deal with some new legislation which covers coal ash, soot and other environment-related questions. This will affect core constituencies. However, there is not necessarily a conflict between these two. You can look after these regulatory issues, and also do Keystone.”
Right-leaning Jonathon Baron disagreed. “The environmental community feels frustrated, so (their protests) have moved down to the state level. The president is going to have to do quite an interesting balancing act to deal with fracturing and Keystone.”
A master of Realpolitik, Baron offered hope for crude oil prices – but hope with a bitter taste. “There’s going to be more instability in the Middle East during an Obama presidency,” he said; after all, the president campaigned on having ended “a decade of war.” If the president is not willing to use American might in response to Iran’s apparent nuclear build-up, Baron argued, there will be mischief in the Middle East. “That volatility means high prices going forward. That has important implications in American markets for Canadian oil sands and natural gas.”
Gas Prices and Markets
Canada’s gas industry is likely to benefit from President Obama’s next term through the conversion of its power industry to natural gas. According to Scotty Greenwood, who served for two terms as a staffer in the Clinton White House, suggested that he “is looking for ways to regulate more stringently, to pivot to natural gas because it’s a cleaner burning fuel than coal. He does have a desire to build demand for natural gas and to clean up the coal industry.” Since it’s his second term, the president will find America’s powerful coal lobbies less daunting.
“During the election campaign Obama virtually did say ‘I hate coal!’” Baron told the CDFAI audience. “Cheap natural gas has given the president an opportunity that didn’t exist before. Because the United States knows that it is not going to be able to implement a carbon tax, it will instead increase the price of coal through regulation, making coal less competitive.”
North American gas markets are likely to expand at the expense of coal. In itself, this may not be cause for much celebration in Canada, since the United States is nearing self-sufficiency in this commodity, and its production and transportation costs are lower. However, Greenwood noted another area where the US political environment could unwittingly favour Canadian natural gas.
In the American political system, Congressional committees have plenty of muscle, and it matters who serves as the chair. The incoming chair of the Senate’s powerful Energy and Natural Resource Committee is Democrat Ron Wyden. Wyden believes large-scale LNG exports would raise natural gas prices in the US, harming the economy. In the past he has argued that Washington should impose a “timeout” on new LNG export facilities, pending review. “That could be the end politically for (additional) natural gas exports from United States,” said Greenwood.
“There is a gigantic and very legitimate debate about whether we should be exporting natural gas,” she added. “My observation is that in the United States it will be politically very difficult to export (gas to other countries).…This could be a big opportunity for Canada, since the same political challenges do not exist here.” Baron concurred. “There are already a number of LNG export projects in the United States. LNG exports along with hydraulic fracturing will be major issues during the president’s second term.”
While the Americans dither, Canada could approve and construct facilities for overseas markets. Eastern Canada already imports about two billion cubic feet per day of gas from the US, and “this is a cheaper source than Western Canada. We are of course a net exporter to the US, but that role is shrinking. We need alternative exports” said AJM Deloitte’s Russum. He observes that Canada is ‘way behind Australia and other countries in developing or expanding LNG facilities. While the US already has gas export facilities in operation, Canada’s first plant won’t be ready until 2019.
“To me the problem is that Canada can’t compete with gas supplies that are abundant, cheaper, and closer to market in the US – for example, Marcellus, Fayetteville, Barnett and Eagleford,” he added. “Gas is still a fossil fuel, so while it is cleaner and more environmentally friendly than coal, it still has the fossil fuel stigma and the fracking stigma. I’m unclear whether it is a problem or a solution in the US. In any case, if prices rise the US has shown it is able to drill and bring on new volumes of shale gas very quickly, which would in turn dampen prices.” Russum added that “prices for natural gas need to be considerably higher to make the industry profitable here.”
The US/Canada Alliance
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney once famously said that “the relationships (between prime ministers and presidents) are absolutely indispensable. If you don’t have a friendly and constructive personal relationship with the president of the United States, nothing is going to happen.”
According to Greenwood, the Canada/US relationship is “hugely important, writ large. It’s much bigger and more integrated than any personality. It matters who is in the White House, but in the end the relationship will do well because it has to, and because of all the history between the two countries.” She added that “the US government does not want to prevent Canadian development in any way. We have very close relationships, and those relationships are of great value on both sides of the border. I think the United States, as Canada’s most important commercial partner, wants Canada to be commercially successful in every possible way.”
Colin Robinson, a Canadian diplomat who helped broker the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA, stressed the importance of international cooperation to help prevent trade disputes. “The first lumber dispute between Canada and the United States goes back to the time of George Washington,” he reminded the CDFAI audience. “These kinds of things do lead to protectionism. In a lot of cases, we have to put competition aside and think of things as North American.”
“Whenever (a diplomat has) to do something in the United States you have to do it through the White House,” according to Baron. The State Department is critical for international affairs, but other parts of government are in play. Formerly Canada’s ambassador to the US, Frank McKenna once said that “The president can love you to death, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have constant harassment from Congress….The tone at the top helps, but it’s not conclusive.”
As this article went to press, there was optimism that the United States would not fall over the “fiscal cliff.” For the sake of talking about the near-term future, this article assumes a compromise that won’t suffocate North America’s economies. If America remains a house divided, though, Canada needs to declare greater independence from US commodity markets. That truth is self-evident.