Why conventional heavy oil is a sizzling commodity in Alberta and Saskatchewan
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
As an oil producer, Saskatchewan seems to have it all. The Bakken light oil trend is a play of frenzied activity. So is Cenovus Energy’s carbon injection oil operation at Weyburn (the world’s largest carbon capture and storage facility). But the province’s meat and potatoes – conventional heavy oil production in the Lloydminster and Kindersley areas – are hidden behind these high-profile developments.
The province’s first 2010 land sale tells the story, but it’s only clear if you dig deeply into the numbers.
Out of nearly $40 million in bonus bids, about $26 million went for land in the Weyburn-Estevan – a reflection of the importance of Bakken and Weyburn. Dig a bit deeper into the numbers, though, and you will find that the highest price paid for a single parcel was $2.1 million for a 1,552-hectare exploration licence in the Lloydminster area. One operator, Baytex Energy, paid $6,512 per hectare for a 16-hectare parcel near Maidstone, also in the Lloydminster area – by far the highest bid per hectare.
Between them, the two heavy oil producing regions in Saskatchewan brought in nearly $10 million in bids – not bad for the Cinderella sister of light oil. The message is clear. The resource has been on production since 1946, but despite its longevity is an increasingly valuable asset. This reality applies to conventional heavy in Alberta as much as it does to production in Saskatchewan. In today’s market the commodity is sizzling. Although there was a blip due to low oil prices a year ago, today’s barrel of conventional heavy is almost as profitable as ever before.
Major changes in transportation to the US and modifications to US refineries have made the Canadian commodity extremely desirable. As a result, the differential paid for Canadian light compared to Canadian heavy is holding firm near historic lows. The differential has averaged about C$8 per barrel for the last year. To put that in perspective, as recently as late 2008 conventional heavy sold briefly for 45% less than Edmonton Par. That wasn’t a profitable environment.
By contrast, the market today is a bit like a winery selling this year’s plonk for 14% less than a vintage wine. Like plonk compared to fine wine, heavy oil is intrinsically less valuable than Edmonton Par, the Canadian standard for light oil. In most refineries, after all, heavy feedstock results in less high-value-added gasoline and more low-value-added asphalt.
But the big US refining complexes are changing that. “It’s a matter of adding vessels to the refinery,” according to Steven Paget; he is vice president for energy infrastructure at First Energy Capital. “Those longer-chain hydrocarbons need more work to break up, but new pipelines from Canada are accessing the refineries at Wood River (Illinois) and Cushing (Oklahoma).” Those refining complexes have the capacity to break heavy oil into lighter feedstock. “Therefore the (narrow) differential becomes minimal or close to equivalent to actual operating cost.”
The good news is that the two heavy oil provinces have a lot of plonk left to sell. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (see chart), between them the two provinces have more than a billion barrels of established reserves left to produce. More importantly, each has estimated heavy oil in place many times the volume of reserves.
CAPP estimates that initial volumes of heavy oil in place (this includes both conventional and non-conventional heavy) were about 15 billion barrels in Alberta, and 20 billion barrels in Saskatchewan. Established reserves will thus continue to grow, just as new in-place volumes will continue to be found.
To understand the economics of conventional heavy, cast your eyes back to the industry’s beginnings.
There are three historical reasons for the growing strength of conventional heavy oil. First, since the 1980s operating costs for conventional heavy production have been in relative decline because of improving technology, higher prices and a better understanding of the reservoirs. Second, policies established since 1990 have lowered royalties for the stuff. Third, the volumes of heavy oil in the Alberta/Saskatchewan heavy oil belt are simply huge. Although the reservoirs tend to be thin, the output is large, and production lasts for many years.
Defined as oil below 20° API which can flow from its reservoirs like lighter oils, conventional heavy oil goes back a long way in Western Canada’s economy. The heavy oil belt is a series of thin sand reservoirs straddling the border of the two provinces. The oil is lighter in density (11-18° API) and of much lower viscosity than the bitumen in the oil sands deposits.
The buckle of the heavy oil belt is Lloydminster, the border town. The first conventional heavy discovery occurred in 1938, and modest development began when Husky Oil (now Husky Energy) moved into the area after World War II. Husky began producing heavy oil from local fields in 1946, and by the 1960s was easily the biggest regional producer. In 1963 the company undertook another in a series of expansions to the refinery (to 12,000 barrels per day). To take advantage of expanding markets for Canadian oil, it also began delivering heavy oil to national and export markets. These developments made conventional heavy more than a marginal resource. Within five years, area production had increased five-fold to 11,000 barrels per day. However, production volumes remained small until the 1990s.
The first of two important developments was the completion of two upgraders – the Co-op facility in Regina and Husky’s in Lloydminster. These upgraders, which were subsidized by government to reduce risk during a period of lousy oil prices, created a large local market for heavy oil. In the early 1990s, production from the heavy oil belt had risen to 300,000 barrels per day – one third of that production being upgraded and refined for local markets. Today Husky produces about 75,000 barrels per day of heavy oil – more than 10% of Canada’s total.
More importantly, in 1993 the Alberta government redefined conventional heavy as “third tier” oil, with highly favourable royalty rates. Once Saskatchewan’s New Democrats were removed from power, new governments in that province matched and then exceeded the Alberta initiative – after all, heavy oil is Saskatchewan’s single most important long-term hydrocarbon resource, so the province had good reason to kick-start development. Indeed, in a modification to the royalty system in 2002, Saskatchewan defined “fourth-tier” heavy oil, with very low initial royalties. All these new tier royalties were great kick-starters. However, as the CAPP data show in the chart below, conventional heavy oil production is now in decline despite growing reserves.
OPEC or Infrastructure?
Especially in a market of declining production, the question of whether differentials will remain narrow is critical. And on this score there is debate. Is the differential likely to narrow or to widen?
According to AJM Petroleum Consulting operations vice president Ralph Glass, the basic reason differentials are so low “is an increased demand for the heavier crude oils from US refineries. Over the last few years there has been a movement by US refineries to enhance their ability to handle the heavier crudes. With the downturn in US demand, OPEC cut their volumes. (The volumes cut were the heavier crudes and done to maximize returns from light crudes which receive higher prices). As a consequence, the US refineries found themselves short of heavier crudes to process, and are now paying a premium for Canadian heavier crudes to reduce the shortfall in their systems.”
He suggests that the demand for heavy oil to fill for new pipelines to the US – TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline into Patoka, Illinois and Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper line to Superior Wisconsin – may narrow the differential even more in the short term. However, the return of competition from OPEC will widen the differential, thus making heavy oil production less profitable.
First Energy’s Steven Paget has a more sanguine view. “The reason the differential has gone down is that we have more transportation infrastructure out of western Canada,” he says. “This allows nearly 90,000 barrels per day of crude to access the Gulf Coast refining complex.” Demand for fill for new lines will increase demand over the short term (narrowing the differential), but the more important factor in his eyes is that those new pipelines will provide increased access to markets, making conventional heavy more competitive in US markets. “The narrow margin is likely to continue.”
Ralph Glass takes the more cautious view. In 2011 and 2012, he says, the industry will experience “widening on implied concerns of heavy OPEC production coming online and increased Canadian heavy production.” If he’s right, and if production continues to decline, expect the sector’s salad days to wilt.