Cablegate: While Wilma Rages, Plans Drawn Up for New Alberta Gulf Coast

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A


1. Some may question Altex President Jack Crawford's timing.
His October 14th press release that his newly-formed Calgary
company is proposing a heavy crude oil pipeline line from
northern Alberta to the refineries of southeast Texas may have
raised a few eyebrows, as meteorologists warned that the largest
Atlantic hurricane in history would soon be hitting the Gulf
Coast. However, few can doubt Crawford's good business sense:
the proposed pipeline would undercut competitors' costs by a
third, and come on-stream just as oil producers in Alberta are
seeking to diversify their markets. While Altex faces many
challenges, both regulatory and financial, in completing the
project, current energy market realities could make its
construction a question of when, not if. The pipeline, which is
expected to carry 250,000 bpd initially from Alberta's tarsands,
could under an "optimistic" scenario, be operational by 2010.
Calgary CG, Econ Assistant and fall intern visited Altex Energy
October 19th to discuss the new pipeline proposal. End summary.


2. Altex Energy was founded earlier this year by former
employees of the Alliance Pipeline, which delivers natural gas
from Fort St. John, British Columbia to Chicago and markets
beyond. This C$5.8 billion pipeline, which was an idea
scribbled on a table napkin in 1995, began delivering natural
gas to the U.S. Midwest in 2000. By utilizing the experience
and success of the Alliance pipeline, members of the Altex
management team hope to convince the oil industry and government
regulators that their proposal will be the most cost-effective,
environmentally friendly partner for Alberta's booming oilsands.
While still only in its first stages, the pipeline project has
financial backing from several investors, including
Calgary-based Kern Energy Partners 1 Fund (KEP), a private
equity fund with a focus on Canadian energy sector resource
development. KEP has C$230 million of committed capital from a
group of partners that includes North American pension funds.

3. Jack Crawford told us that the unique design of the
estimated $3 billion Altex pipeline will enable it to transport
heavy crude at only two-thirds the cost of its competitors.
Central to the Altex strategy is to develop a "straight shot"
pipeline from Alberta to Texas, approximately 2000 kilometers,
similar in scope to the Alliance pipeline. Current pipeline
systems generally travel a circuitous route through central
Canada to Chicago and Minneapolis before making their way to the
southeast. While these designs were once the most economical
means available for delivering crude oil to refineries on the
Great Lakes, Crawford told us that logic has changed. US oil
exports from Canada have increased so much in recent decades
that the percentage of refineries devoted to Canadian crude has
risen from half to nearly 100%. Crawford estimates Gulf Coast
refining capacity at some seven million bpd, with the capacity
to refine two million bpd of heavy crude. Also working in
Altex's favor is their pipeline's low profit threshold. Crawford
told us that the Altex pipeline will only need to ship 250,000
barrels per day (bpd) to stay economical, compared to the
average 400,000 bpd needed by other systems to break even. Of
course, with most energy experts predicting sustained high
energy prices, Altex plans leave room for expansion; the
proposed pipeline would have a maximum volume of some 750,000
bpd, just under current total daily Alberta oilsands production
of one million bpd.

--------------------------------------------- -
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4. Altex is not without competition, as several players in the
pipeline industry, with an eye to future oil development, have
formulated proposals of their own. Calgary-based Enbridge Inc.,
Canada's dominant oil pipeline company, has advanced several
designs, most notably their proposed C$4 billion "Gateway"
project aimed at transporting 400,000 bpd of crude from northern
Alberta to Kitimat, British Columbia and on to markets in Asia.
Extensions of its U.S. Midwest system are also planned. In
addition to Terasen Pipelines' proposed C$210 million expansion
of its Trans Mountain oil pipeline from Alberta to British
Columbia, Calgary-based TransCanada Corp., Canada's largest
transporter of natural gas, hopes to grab a share of the market
by moving early, converting one of its primary natural gas
pipelines from west to east into an oil pipeline (known as
"Keystone") directed towards U.S. markets south of Manitoba.
None of the proposals, however, are expected to come to fruition
for at least several years.

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5. Although economic circumstances ensure increasing demand for
pipelines such as Crawford's, regulatory challenges could
forestall Altex for years to come. Federal governments,
environmental boards, First Nations, and local landowners must
all be placated before construction begins. While it will take
time and energy to acquire regulatory approval from Canada's
National Energy Board (NEB), permits in the United States are
typically even more difficult to obtain. Crawford noted to us
that natural gas pipelines can be approved by the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC), but oil pipelines operate under a
separate regulatory regime, and are subject to purview by every
state government through which a pipeline passes. The Altex
pipeline would pass through seven: Montana, South Dakota,
Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and possibly Louisiana.
Altex must negotiate terms with each individual property owner
its pipeline will run through, meaning multiple tens of
thousands of agreements. While Crawford says it is likely that
Altex will be given the same expropriation and property
condemnation powers that Alliance was awarded in 1998, he
expects they will rarely be used noting, "99.5% of the time with
Alliance we were able to obtain permission without employing
such extreme measures".

7. A final challenge for Altex, assuming the infant company
acquires the necessary regulatory and land use approvals, will
be competing for scarce labor resources. With Alberta building
permits increasing by 30% this year and busy cranes a common
sight in Edmonton and Calgary, few construction contractors are
eager to take on more work. However, this problem also
emphasizes the logic of new pipelines; while some Albertans
would prefer value-adding refinery capacity in-province, the
labor necessary for such a massive upgrade simply isn't
available. Additionally, Crawford told us that Altex would not
face these acute labor shortages south of the border, where the
unemployment rate is several points higher. All of that said,
Crawford told us that, "optimistically", the pipeline could be
in operation by 2010 when oilsands production is projected to
rise to nearly two million barrels per day.


8. The timing of Altex's pipeline could hardly be more
fortuitous. The price spikes brought on by the damage done to
Gulf oil production demonstrate the need to diversify U.S. crude
oil supplies. Refineries in the southeast continue to upgrade
their heavy oil capacity, while the world market for light crude
continues to tighten. Republic Senator Orrin Hatch's recent
comments underscore the increasing importance of Canada's role
in the ongoing diversification process, as Alberta's oilsands
producers strive to fill demand to a nation seeking independence
from unstable oil exporters.


© Scoop Media

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