It will take until at least 2017 before TransCanada Corp.'s much-vaunted plan to take oil across the country can take Alberta oil to Eastern Canada, a lengthy timeline that casts into question the role of that project in easing current pricing pain for the oil patch.
Canadian energy companies are forgoing millions of dollars a day in revenues as pinched export pipelines create an oil glut in Alberta that has hurt prices. The prospect of easing that glut by pumping oil through parts of TransCanada's cross-country natural gas network has attracted substantial political favour, with Alison Redford and David Alward, the Premiers of Alberta and New Brunswick, stirring excitement about a project they say can help solve the problem.
But if the west-to-east pipeline offers a solution, it's not a quick one.
On Tuesday, TransCanada outlined a potential timeline for the project. An "open season" to solicit for contractual support could be held toward June of this year. A formal regulatory filing might then be made near the end of 2013, which would trigger a review likely to take 18 to 24 months. After that, construction would take two years, Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada's president of energy and oil pipelines, said Tuesday.
It's "looking like 2017" before it's in service," he said.
That timeline offers a reality check to the optimism presented by the two Premiers, who met in Alberta last week. In a speech, Ms. Redford said the two governments are "making good progress very quickly" on the project. She later added that "people are very optimistic" about the prospects for carrying Alberta oil to Montreal, Quebec City or Saint John – the final destination has yet to be chosen.
Alberta has discussed the west-to-east plans in the context of large discounts in the price of heavy oil. On Tuesday, heavy oil futures sold for a per-barrel discount of $26.17 (U.S.) from the benchmark West Texas intermediate. The historical average discount has been about $18.
But crude deliveries four years from now are "irrelevant to the immediate-term issue that we're in a panic about right now," said Rafi Tahmazian, who manages several energy funds for Canoe Financial LP. Without new pipeline capacity by 2015, serious trouble could ensue, he said.
"You're going to start seeing a lot of [corporate development] programs cancelled," he said. "We are drilling and building production at a level that we cannot consume, and now we can no longer handle." It's something that has got to be addressed immediately, or it's going to start to show up on the bottom line of these producers."
On Tuesday, TransCanada reported fourth-quarter profit of $318-million, or 45 cents a share, down from $365-million, or 52 cents, the year before. It said problems at its Sundance A power plant hurt per-share earnings by 6 cents. Another 1-cent drop was due to outages at its Bruce nuclear facility; a further 4-cent hit came from lower revenue and higher costs at some of its U.S. natural gas pipelines.
TransCanada, meanwhile, continues to hold out hope for its Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. Gulf, which could start moving oil by late 2014 or early 2015. A supplemental environmental impact statement from the U.S. Department of State could be released in the next week or two, but a decision from the State Department is not likely for another two to three months, TransCanada said Tuesday.
Chief executive officer Russ Girling argued that "the need for the project continues to grow as North American oil production increases."
TransCanada executives also pointed to substantial interest in the west-to-east project, saying it's likely to be a larger project, at the mid-point or higher of a 500,000 to one-million-barrel-per-day range.
"I suspect it will be … larger-diameter pipe to give us the optionality going forward of being able to expand in the future," Mr. Girling said.
The government of Alberta, meanwhile, argued that it has not overinflated expectations. for new projects. It pointed to remarks made by Energy Minister Ken Hughes several weeks ago. At the time, he said of the pricing problems confronting the province: "This is not something that's going to be resolved in one month, one year, or a year-and-a-half. It's a much longer cycle."