Alberta’s oil production limits finally seem to be working — for now

Alberta’s oil production curbs finally appear to be draining inventories, at least for now.

Crude supplies in Western Canada fell by 2.75 million barrels last month to the lowest since November 2017, Genscape Inc. said Wednesday. The decline is welcome news for the province, which has been struggling to set production limits at a level that would shrink inventories by making oil cheap enough to stimulate exports by rail, but not so cheap that prices collapse, as happened last year.

“It seems like the government is playing it safe to very carefully nudge that production back up,” Rory Johnston, commodity economist at Scotiabank, said by phone. “It’s going to be a Goldilocks testing game.”

Crude-by-rail exports have picked up, rising in June to the highest monthly average since January, according to Genscape. Oilsands producer Cenovus Energy Inc. said last month it was “on track” to ramp up crude by rail shipments to 100,000 barrels a day by year-end while Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. expects crude-by-rail shipments to rise 20 per cent this quarter versus the last. Pipeline companies are also finding ways to add some extra capacity to existing pipelines.

Still, stockpiles could swell again, now that oilsands facilities have finished seasonal maintenance and are dialling up production.

“Producers were ramping up rail while the turnarounds were occurring,” Kevin Birn, IHS Markit’s director of North American crude oil markets, said by phone.

The local price for heavy Western Canadian Select has stayed strong relative to West Texas Intermediate futures even as inventories have fallen. To incent further rail shipments that would deepen the inventory decline, heavy crude’s discount to the U.S. benchmark would need to widen from about US$13 a barrel now to US$20 a barrel, Scotiabank’s Johnson said.

Last week, Imperial Oil Ltd. said it would “ramp down” crude-by-rail exports from its Alberta terminal because oil prices were too strong to make it economic.

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