By Daniel Gilbert, Ben Lefebvre and Chester Dawson
The U.S. government is issuing its final environmental study of TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL oil pipeline, resurrecting the energy industry's hope that the long-delayed project could be approved.
The 830,000-barrel-a-day line, which has been hanging in political limbo for years, is a potential boon to crude producers in western Canada and refiners on the U.S. Gulf Coast, but is no longer widely seen by the oil industry as the panacea it once was.
The proposed $5.3 billion pipeline would create a major new artery for crude from Canada's oil sands and North Dakota's Bakken Shale to the Gulf of Mexico, home to America's refining hub. Many in the petroleum industry stopped banking on the 1,200-mile line ever being built and made arrangements to ship North America's rising crude output by alternative means.
The Keystone XL line has met stiff opposition from environmentalists because it would transport from western Canada heavy, tar-like crude that creates even more emissions than conventional drilling. The two-year delay to build Keystone hasn't stopped the flow of oil, though. Oil producers, pipeline companies and refiners have hit upon new ways to get crude from wells to refining complexes, including expanding capacity on existing pipelines and shipping crude on railroads.
Even without Keystone XL, Canadian oil exports to the U.S. rose in 2013. Canada shipped an average of 3.1 million barrels a day of oil to the U.S. between January and November--the latest data available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration--a 6% increase over the same period of 2012.
Railcars increasingly are carrying crude oil out of remote inland oil fields in Canada. U.S. companies shipped 280 million barrels of oil by rail during the first nine months of 2013, nearly double the volume in 2012 and almost six times the traffic in 2011, according to data from the Association of American Railroads.
Exxon Mobil Corp., a major producer in Canada's oil sands, said Thursday it is building a railway loading facility in Edmonton, Alberta, to "enable efficient, cost-effective transportation of heavy crude." The terminal is expected to be complete by early next year.
"Pipeline, rail, barge--we are using all of the logistics opportunities available to us," David Rosenthal, Exxon's vice president of investor relations, said Thursday as the company reported annual profits.
Even so, Exxon Mobil's Canadian subsidiary, Imperial Oil Ltd., has secured nearly 400,000 barrels a day of additional pipeline capacity out of Alberta on proposed pipelines, including Keystone XL.
The project still matters to refiners along the Gulf Coast, including Valero Energy Corp. and Marathon Petroleum Corp., which have invested billions of dollars in recent years to process heavy crude like the kind coming out of Canada.
"We're seeing some supplies come in from Canada on other pipelines, by rail, some supplies by barge," Valero spokesman Bill Day said. "But it's not as efficient as having one gigantic pipeline."
Valero had signed an agreement to purchase oil from Keystone XL, but it has expired.
While railways have accommodated much of the booming supplies, this method of shipping also faces risks. Regulators are taking a closer look at railcars after a string of recent accidents, including a fiery crash in Quebec last summer that killed 47 people. Efforts to make tanker cars safer could mean fewer of them will be available, according to Cowen & Co. analyst Sam Margolin.
"Keystone is more important now because rail is starting to meet more regulatory attention," he said.
Canada's oil sands are projected to yield more than double the amount of crude in 2025 than they did in 2012, rising to 4.5 million barrels a day, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The extra 2.7 million barrels a day would require the construction of more pipelines and rail terminals.
If Keystone XL is built, its effects are likely to ripple beyond the U.S. A surge of heavy Canadian crude at the Gulf Coast could crowd out similar types of oil that U.S. refiners import from Venezuela and Mexico. The two countries shipped a combined average of 1.9 million barrels a day of heavy oil to the U.S. in 2012, the last full year for which federal data are available.
Alison Sider contributed to this article.
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