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Crude by rail, status of new projects likely to dominate Canadian producers' Q3 calls

Highlights

Producers pushing for more crude-by-rail deals

But first, all eyes are on Canada's federal elections

Rail arb approaches healthy rail economics range

Houston — The fate of Alberta government's pending crude-by-rail deals and pipeline takeaway issues generally from Canada's largest producing province will likely dominate the landscape of those producers' Q3 earnings calls in the next few weeks.

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The status of pending oil sands and other project startups will also be a theme during the calls, analysts said. And like US producers, Canadian upstream executives are likely to recommit to capital discipline on quarterly calls and also demonstrate how they will generate more free cash flow.

But the unique, critical issue for Canada is whether, when and how Alberta's government will make deals with industry to allow more crude volumes to travel via rail, offloading the province's contracts with rail carriers Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway worthC$3.7 billion ($2.8 billion) and capacity of about 120,000 b/d.

"We're largely in a wait-and-see pattern with pipelines and curtailments," analyst Parker Fawcett of S&P Global Platts Analytics said Tuesday.

Takeaway is maxed out currently. Operators can't materially grow production because of capacity constraints and provincial curtailments. IMO 2020 and its impacts are coming," he said, referring to the International Maritime Organization's sharp curb in marine fuels emissions starting in January.

"Operators are completely tightening the belts and paying down debt with significant free cash flow generation," Fawcett said.

Most of the Q3 calls will take place after Canada's upcoming federal elections, scheduled for October 21.

LIMITED ELECTION IMPACTS TO OIL PATCH

While analysts expect limited election impacts to the oil industry, Canadian crude takeaway from the western basin has price implications as the tug-of-war continues between lower-cost new pipelines stymied by regulatory delays and demand for more crude by rail.

Insufficient pipelines caused discounts on Canada's heavy crude oil to widen last year briefly to over $50/b, prompting Alberta's government to implement production curtailments at the start of 2019. The caps were recently extended until year-end 2020.

Initially, Alberta's cap was set at 3.56 million b/d in January, but has since been gradually eased. For October it is 3.79 million b/d, rising to 3.8 million b/d in November and 3.81 million b/d in December.

That caused last year's wide oil price differentials, which peaked in October 2018, to narrow considerably this year. The WTI-WCS differential averaged in the $11-$12s/b range in September 2019.

But so far this month, it has widened to $14-$16s/b, likely on eased curtailments and potentially less demand for Canada's sulfurous heavy crude ahead of the IMO 2020 regulations.

Even so, WCS prices could be propped up as demand for Canadian crude rises to replace falling production from Venezuela, Mexico and OPEC countries facing production cuts or sanctions, and if Alberta output curtailments actually continue through 2020 as now planned, "effectively setting a floor to WCS pricing," a recent report by Goldman Sachs said.

CANADA CRUDE BY RAIL VOLUMES RISING

Crude-by-rail exports from Canada have increased steadily since March after tanking earlier this year as curtailments took effect. From 168,500 b/d in March, railed export volumes increased to 232,300 b/d in April, 286,700 b/d in June and 313,300 b/d in July - the most recent month for which data is available.

Rail arbitrages for the majority of 2020 is expected to remain open to ship to the US Gulf Coast, Fawcett said.

"Rail economics are supported when the difference between [crudes] WCS at Hardisty versus WCS at Nederland or Maya (heavy versus heavy in US Gulf Coast) are above the $12/b-14/b range," he said.

Spot rail shipments become more economic when differentials approach the high teens, Fawcett said.

"When those price differentials are under $10/b, that means we are looking at pipe economics, while rail would be out of the money," he said.

But Canada's major rail carriers say they expect more shipments.

Railed volumes in Canada have risen in recent months. For example, Canadian Pacific expects Q3 volumes of around 27,000-28,000, up from roughly 25,000 carloads of crude in Q2, CP's executive vice-president, John Brooks, said at a CIBC investor conference last month.

"And then in Q4 ... sequentially bumping up to maybe 30,000 carloads," Brooks said.

In Q2 calls, Canadian producers Husky, Cenovus and Suncor said they were working with the provincial government to raise production beyond curtailment quotas if those volumes were matched by incremental crude-by rail volumes.

-- Starr Spencer, starr.spencer@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Richard Rubin, newsdesk@spglobal.com