Canada has been receiving low prices for its oilsands bitumen exports, compared to the prices paid for lighter, sweeter crude oil. Price discounts have typically been about $13, with about $7 due to transportation costs and the remainder due to the quality difference. In recent months, that differential has grown, compared to historical averages, due to the lack of transportation capacity to move crude to market. These low prices have sparked a national debate over pipeline access to Canadian tidewater ports. Premier Notley recently announced oilsands production cuts to try and boost export prices.
Very little attention has been given to a recent regulation adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Starting in January 2020, the sulphur in fuel used by ships for international trade will have to reduce dramatically. This will have knock on effects for the higher sulphur content Canadian heavy crude destined for refineries in the United States. The Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) estimates that the price discount for Western Canada crude exports will increase from an historic differential of $13/bbl to $31 – $33/bbl (2017 US$). Based on market responses, this discount could last for up to a decade.
Canada is one of the major producers of high sulphur heavy crude oil. There is limited US refining capacity available to meet this new IMO sulphur reduction requirement. As well, higher refining costs to remove sulphur will be reflected by discounting the prices paid to producers. For these reasons, CERI projects greater downward price pressure on Canadian heavy crude. How long this discount may last depends on the response of the merchant shipping fleet and refineries. If shippers install more scrubbers than expected or refineries create more capacity to refine heavy sour crude, that discount could be smaller and have a shorter duration than indicated in the analysis.
More details about this CERI report can be found here.