Will Ottawa get its money back on Trans Mountain? CER report raises fresh questions

Click to play video: 'Trans Mountain pipeline appeal dismissed by Supreme Court'
Trans Mountain pipeline appeal dismissed by Supreme Court
WATCH: The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled it will not hear an appeal by several First Nations, challenging the federal government's approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. – Jul 2, 2020

A recent report by the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) is causing quite a stir. The analysis, released on Tuesday, projects the growth of Canada’s oil export supplies flattening out through 2050 if the world continues to strengthen action on climate change.

That scenario is raising questions about whether Ottawa, which sank $4.4 billion into the acquisition of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan Canada, will be able to get its money back.

READ MORE: Canada Energy Regulator projects there may be no need for Trans Mountain pipeline expansion

Canada is currently set on receiving added pipeline capacity through the Enbridge Line 3 replacement, from Alberta to Wisconsin, which is nearing completion; the Keystone XL, from Alberta to Nebraska; and the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline between Alberta and Burnaby, B.C. The latest CER projections raise the question of whether this country’s oil producers will truly need all three projects.

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Click to play video: 'Father of 4 killed at Trans Mountain work site'
Father of 4 killed at Trans Mountain work site

While the Alberta government has invested $1.5 billion in the Keystone XL and put forth a $6-billion loan guarantee, the future of the Trans Mountain expansion looms even larger for Canadian taxpayers. Construction of the project is now expected to cost $12.6 billion, according to a February estimate.

The CER report shows Canada likely still needs two out of the three projects to have sufficient capacity to get crude oil from Western Canada to market efficiently and without having to rely on expensive oil-by-rail, says Kent Fellows, an economist at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

READ MORE: Keystone XL not the same pipeline project John Kerry nixed in 2015, Canada’s U.S. envoy says

“We don’t necessarily need three out of three,” Fellows says. “Could we make use of three out of three? That’s a bigger question mark.”

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Longtime critics of the Trans Mountain expansion have pointed to the CER projections as evidence the project is unnecessary and economically unviable.

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Economist Robyn Allan, who has been an expert intervenor in Trans Mountain hearings, says Ottawa will have a tough time finding a private company willing to take the pipeline off its hands.

Click to play video: 'Trans Mountain expansion costs balloon'
Trans Mountain expansion costs balloon

“You could not even sell the existing pipeline for what Ottawa paid for it. Now it’s so much worse,” she says. “Trans Mountain will be a stranded asset according to what we know now,” she adds.

The Trudeau cabinet approved Trans Mountain first in 2016, then again in 2019. The second approval was required after the Federal Court of Appeal ruled Canada hadn’t properly consulted Indigenous communities or considered the impact the pipeline would have on marine life.

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READ MORE: Trans Mountain pipeline expansion on schedule, on budget: CEO

That second approval came more than a year after Ottawa had stepped in to buy the existing Trans Mountain pipeline. Kinder Morgan was about to cancel the project because political opposition was delaying construction. Trudeau pledged Canada would buy the existing pipeline, expand it, and then sell it back to the private sector.

Under what it calls an “evolving scenario” of more ambitious climate policies, the CER projects Canada’s crude oil production will edge up until 2039, peaking at 5.8 million barrels per day, and then slowly decline.

That’s far below the output level the energy regulator projects in its status-quo scenario, which sees oil production growing to top seven million barrels per day over the forecast period.

Click to play video: 'Freeland says building TMX pipeline is in ‘national interest’'
Freeland says building TMX pipeline is in ‘national interest’

Allan says the trend toward slower crude production growth was already apparent in 2016 when the oil patch started seeing international energy giants pull out of oilsands investments. That’s when Norway’s Statoil exited Canada’s oil patch. Marathon Oil and Royal Dutch Shell followed suit shortly after.

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“There was a structural shift occurring and the major market signal was the change in investment intentions of business,” Allan says.

The Trudeau government ignored those market signals when pitching the Trans Mountain acquisition to Canadians, basing its evidence of the purported benefits of the pipeline expansion on overly optimistic estimates of future oil output, according to Allan.

READ MORE: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers grants final federal Line 3 permit 

Now the drop in fossil-fuel demand triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the government to reckon with a much less rosy outlook for crude production, she says.

The future of U.S. policy on climate change likely looms large on the CER’s evolving scenario, Fellows says. That includes not just measures likely to be adopted by the newly elected Biden administration but also state-level legislation by jurisdictions like California.

Still, even if Canadian crude oil production were to peak in the next decade, it wouldn’t necessarily mean the country would have no use for a third pipeline project, Fellows says.

“There is still a chance of a return on three out of three if they all get built,” he says.

READ MORE: What do Canada’s net-zero targets mean for Albertans? 

Pipelines can be profitable even with some spare capacity, as lower volumes allow pipeline operators to charge higher tolls to transport Canada’s oil, Fellows says.

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“The demand for the pipeline has to fall a considerably long way to put the overall economics of a pipeline in jeopardy,” he says.

When it comes to Trans Mountain, he notes, data shows demand to ship on the existing pipeline has exceeded capacity every single month for about a decade. And the pipeline remained full even as oil demand dropped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he adds.

Still, Fellows says, whether Canada will actually need three new projects adding pipeline capacity is now “more of an open question than it was.”

— With files from the Canadian Press

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