Opinion

The Keystone XL Pipeline: A Risky Bet on Higher Oil Prices and Tight Oil


The Keystone XL Pipeline (KXL) is a bet on much higher oil prices several years from now.  It will take at least $85 oil prices to develop the new oil sand projects needed to fill the pipeline.

It is also a bet that U.S. tight oil output will continue to grow and will need heavy oil to blend for refining. Both bets are risky.

A Bet On Higher Oil Prices

KXL would add about 830,000 barrels per day (b/d) to the 1.3 million b/d already moving through the base Keystone Pipeline system completed in 3 phases between 2010 and 2014 (Figure 1) when oil prices were more than $90 per barrel.

Figure 1. Location map of Keystone XL and Base Keystone pipeline systems. Source: TransCanada and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

It was not until prices exceeded $70 per barrel in 2005 (December 2016 dollars) that oil sands expansion began to accelerate (Figure 2). Since then, production has almost doubled from 1.3 to 2.4 mmb/d and cumulative production has increased from 5.4 to 10 billion barrels.

Figure 2. Oil Sands Production Nearly Doubled After Oil Prices Exceeded $70 Per Barrel. Source: Statistics Canada and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

By comparison, the Bakken and Eagle Ford tight oil plays have each produced 2.4 billion barrels. The Permian horizontal tight oil plays–Spraberry, Wolfcamp and Bone Spring–have produced less than 1 billion barrels.*

Table 1. Comparison of Oil Sands and U.S. tight oil plays. Source: Statistics Canada, EIA, Drilling Info and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

In 2015, oil prices averaged only $43 per barrel. No new oil sand projects have been sanctioned since oil prices collapsed in 2014 although 3 pilot projects have been approved since prices moved into the $50 per barrel range. Approval is not the same as sanctioning and these 3 projects together would add only 35,000 b/d.

It seems unlikely that new greenfield projects will be sanctioned until oil prices move much higher (Canadian heavy oil (WCS) trades at a 25% discount to WTI). Assuming that prices stabilize in the $50 to $60 range, it is reasonable that pilots may evolve into brownfield expansion projects over the next year or two.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that annual oil sand production will grow 128,000 b/d until 2021 and then, grow more slowly at 59,000 b/d. If all of that new oil were going to KXL, it would not reach capacity for about 10 years. But other pipelines are already approved for expansion and will probably get much of the oil before KXL is completed.

TransCanada's bet, therefore, is that oil prices will move much higher and more quickly than most forecasts anticipate and that the volumes will be there by the time that the pipeline is built.

Light Oil and Heavy Oil

U.S. tight oil plays produce ultra-light oil. Almost all of it is too light for refinery specifications. That means that it must be blended with heavy oil in order to be refined and that is why there is demand for Canadian heavy oil.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is, therefore, a bet that tight oil plays will continue for several decades.

Similarly, Canadian viscous, heavy oil must be diluted with ultra-light oil to move through pipelines. Because of that, Canada is the biggest importer of U.S. light oil.

The U.S. imports almost 3 times more oil from Canada than from Saudi Arabia (Figure 3). Imports from Canada are roughly equal to the amount from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia and Iraq combined.

Figure 3. The U.S. imports almost 3 times more oil from Canada than from Saudi Arabia. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The average U.S. refinery is designed for 31° API gravity oil but 80% of domestic crude oil is more than 30° and 70% is more than 35° API gravity so it must be blended with heavier oil before it can be refined (Figure 4). The Keystone Pipeline carries oil that is approximately 22° API so the fit with lighter U.S. oil is perfect.

Figure 4. 80% of U.S. Crude Oil is greater than 30° API and 70% is greater than 35° API. Source: Drilling Info, EIA, Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc. and Crude Oil Peak.

The increasing percentage of ultra-light oil (>40° API) after 2011 shown in Figure 4 is because of the growth of tight oil plays. More than 95% of tight oil is greater than 30° API and these plays now account for more than half (52%) of U.S. output.

It is, therefore, no surprise that 98% of the oil imported by the U.S. is heavy that is, less than 35° API gravity (Figure 5). The biggest sources of heavy oil other than Canada are Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico.

Figure 5. 98% of U.S. Imports Less Than 35° API Gravity. Source: Drilling Info, Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc. and Crude Oil Peak.

Production from Venezuela and Mexico is declining (Figure 6). Canada, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have strong production histories and are, therefore, more reliable long-term providers of heavy oil to the U.S. Canada has many advantages over other providers because of geographic proximity, supply security and price.

Figure 6. Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria and Angola Have Declining Incremental Production. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Venezuela has enormous reserves of heavy oil and declining production is mostly because of political and social instability. This could change but it is more likely that Venezuela's problems will continue. Mexico's production decline is more systemic because the country has not made a significant new discovery since 1980.

A Bet on Tight Oil

So far, so good for the Keystone XL Pipeline but what about the longevity of the tight oil plays?

Production from the Bakken and Eagle Ford plays is in marked decline and Permian tight oil production growth has slowed (Figure 7). This is despite record high numbers of producing wells in all 3 plays.

Figure 7. Bakken and Eagle Ford production are declining and Permian basin tight oil production growth has slowed. Source: Drilling Info, Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc. and Crude Oil Peak.

The Bakken and Eagle Ford plays have probably peaked based on remaining core area locations, generally poorer performance from recently drilled wells compared to older wells, and current rig activity. Assuming that oil prices recover to the $70 range in coming years, production should increase as more marginal locations become economically viable–just not to peak levels reached in 2015.

The Permian basin, on the other hand, should continue to grow for several years for all of the reasons that the Bakken and Eagle Ford will not. There are substantial areas in the Permian core that have not been fully developed. Well performance continues to improve and the horizontal rig count has increased 70% since mid-August to 243.

Most forecasts are optimistic about tight oil output. The EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2017 anticipates that tight oil production will decline in 2017 but recover to 2015 peak levels by 2019 (Figure 8). WTI oil prices are expected to be $64 per barrel then and slowly increase to $80 by 2025. Tight oil production will rise to 6 mmb/d by 2026.

Figure 8. EIA Forecast: Tight Oil Will Not Recover to 2015 Levels Until 2019 and Then Increase to 6 mmb/d by 2026. Source: EIA AEO 2017 and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Although the forecast seems reasonable, it assumes that 2016 was the oil-price floor and that prices will continue to increase. It also suggests that prices will not reach the $70 threshold for new oil sand projects for 5 years. Other forecasts like HSBC are more aggressive and anticipate mid-$70 WTI prices as early as 2018.



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