Alberta oil exports threatened by surging U.S. output

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." - Ferris Bueller, from the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Our politicians could learn a thing or two from Ferris Bueller, that wisecracking teenage truant of yesteryear.

Life does move pretty fast these days - so fast that our politicians can't seem to keep up with reality. While Alberta's party leaders dream up new ways to spend future budget surpluses in a bid to win votes, the foundation on which those surpluses are based grows more questionable by the day.

In case you haven't noticed, the United States - which consumes virtually all of Alberta's oil and natural gas exports - has transformed itself into the fastest growing oil and natural gas producer in the world. Even as U.S. domestic demand continues to fall, U.S. energy output is soaring.

For Alberta's energy industry, which has almost no access to other markets, what's going on south of the border is a potential game-changer. Which may help to explain why so many leading energy stocks - from Suncor to Canadian Natural Resources - are plunging, even as talk of a new energy boom grows.

It's a disconcerting paradox, and one that politicians and voters seem almost oblivious to, halfway through this election campaign.

Thanks to an explosion of shale gas supplies, a rebound in U.S. oil production, and a decline in U.S. demand for gasoline and other refined products, the world's largest energy consumer became a net exporter of petroleum products last year.

That's the first time that has happened since 1949, and analysts say it's likely just the start of a new era in which U.S. energy output expands, slashing demand for imports of crude oil and natural gas.

"After more than three decades of falling oil production in the Lower 48 states, the U.S. is now poised to sharply increase domestic oil production and sharply decrease its dependence on imported oil," says a report from Raymond James.

"The consequences of this massive, structural U.S. energy supply shift echo well beyond oil and gas stocks. It means the U.S. is poised to become meaningfully less dependent upon the rest of the world."

Raymond James estimates U.S. oil imports, which peaked at 13.5 million barrels a day in 2005 and slid to 9.8 million barrels a day last year, will fall to 4.5 million barrels a day by 2015. By 2020, it expects net imports to hit zero. "That's right - oil independence," the report states.

The energy analysts at Citigroup have come to a similar conclusion. In a 92-page report released in March, Citi's team lays out in detail how new drilling techniques such as horizontal drilling and fracking (hydraulic fracturing) have opened up significant new supplies of tight oil, shale oil, and natural gas liquids (NGLs) across the U.S.

Combined with expected increases in deepwater production from beneath the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, Citi's analysts foresee total U.S. crude oil and NGL production hitting 14.1 million barrels a day by 2020, an astonishing 74-per-cent increase from last year's total of 8.1 million barrels a day.

If those targets are met, that means Alberta's growing bitumen supplies will be competing for a steadily shrinking slice of a declining U.S. oil market.

In proclaiming North America "the new Middle East" of global energy, the Citi report takes pains to include Canada and Mexico as part of the continental market. But with domestic U.S. supplies on a sharp upward trajectory, and the opportunities for future U.S. job growth and economic growth so great, it's clear where U.S. interests lie: right at home.

"We estimate that the cumulative impact of new production, reduced consumption, and associated activity may increase real GDP (Gross Domestic Product) by two to three per cent, creating from 2.7 million to as high as 3.6 million net new jobs by 2020," the Citi report states.

Of course, there are lots of potential hurdles, including a lack of pipeline infrastructure, and the green lobby's furious opposition to any expansion of the fossil fuel industry.

Moreover, skeptics say booming production growth from North Dakota's Bakken field is over-hyped, and won't make much of a difference in the end. But that misses the point.

The Bakken field is just one of many new sources of crude, shale gas and NGLs that are expected to be exploited in the U.S. over the coming decade. If that happens it won't be good news for Alberta's energy industry.

It's time our politicians noticed the storm on the horizon. It's approaching fast.
To view the actual article, click Edmonton Journal.


Gary Lamphier
Author: Gary Lamphier