Inside the Keystone pipeline: How much would it really help US consumers?

Politicians paint a rosy picture of lower gas prices and abundant supply, but Canadian firms behind the Keystone pipeline expect it to supply Gulf Coast export markets and raise Midwest oil prices.

Matt Strasen/The Oklahoman/AP/File
In this September 2005 file photo, the marker that welcomes commuters to Cushing, Okla. is seen. Canadian company TransCanada says it will build an oil pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas after President Obama blocked the larger Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.

Often lost in the political wrangling over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline – on hold after President Obama rejected TransCanada’s initial construction proposal – are some key findings that run counter to the rosy picture of abundant supply and lower prices so often painted by US politicians.

Canadian companies backing the Keystone XL – touted as enhancing US energy security with a big new surge of imported Canadian oil – actually expect it to supply more lucrative Gulf Coast export markets as well as raise Midwest oil prices by reducing “oversupply” in that region.

These little-publicized findings are contained in the studies and testimony of experts working for TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands across America’s heartland to Gulf Coast refineries.

Some of these concerns popped up, albeit briefly, in US congressional testimony last year on the pipeline project, and have given rise to a recent proposal to bar the sale of Keystone oil overseas.

In the latest round of Capitol Hill fighting over the pipeline, Senate Democrats on Thursday defeated a Republican amendment to the transportation bill that would have fast-tracked the project by stripping the State Department of its approval authority and giving it to Congress.

In February, legislation to force US approval of the pipeline passed the House 237-187. That bill would strip the president of authority to block the project and give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission 30 days to approve the pipeline.

But most of the heated partisan rhetoric over job creation and gasoline prices glosses over what Keystone would or wouldn’t do for the US.

TransCanada’s case

“Keystone will bring many benefits to the United States, but I believe the most important role that Keystone will play is to bring energy security to the United States during what has been recently some very unsettling times overseas,” Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada’s president for energy and oil pipelines, said in a congressional hearing in December.

So, would TransCanada support US legislation requiring Canadian oil and products refined from it, such as diesel, to be sold only in the United States, asked Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts, “so that this country realizes all of the energy security benefits your company and others have promised?”

“No, I can't do that,” Mr. Pourbaix said.

In an e-mailed statement, TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha writes that Keystone XL could help cut US reliance on Mideast and Venezuelan imports “by up to 40 percent.” He cites a 2010 US Department of Energy study that he contends says more Canadian oil would “help reduce US imports of foreign oil from sources outside of North America.”

Most analysts agree that more Canadian oil flowing south would help reduce imports from other regions. Less obvious, however, is the fact that the Keystone XL pipeline is not actually needed to bring all that new Canadian oil to the US – a flow now projected to rise to 1.7 million barrels per day by 2030, according to the same DOE study. Often characterized by proponents as validating the need for the pipeline, that study actually found that Canadian oil import growth will go on at “almost identical” levels through 2030 using existing and new pipeline capacity as well as rail shipments – whether or not Keystone XL is built.

Political backlash

Even so, supporters in Congress continue to call Keystone XL “a no-brainer" from a US energy-security standpoint, also arguing it would benefit consumers by lowering gas prices, too. Keystone XL's “supplies from reliable sources leads to lower costs, thereby putting downward pressure on prices,” one study on TransCanada's website says.

According to this premise, Keystone XL would move up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian crude south each day, boosting economic activity by billions of dollars and creating thousands of new jobs – though their precise number is hotly disputed.

Yet in January, Mr. Obama, under pressure by Republicans, reiterated his previous decision to deny permission to build the Keystone XL– at least for now. The pipeline “would not serve the national interest at this time,” Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, an assistant secretary of State, subsequently told the House subcommittee on Energy and Power, citing “unresolved concerns” including energy security, economic effects and environmental impacts.

TransCanada replied to the denial by saying it would resubmit its construction proposal to address the environmental concerns, and on Tuesday a company executive reportedly said new plans that rerouted the pipeline away from the sensitive Nebraska Sandhills region would be ready in weeks.

But the president's denial unleashed a furor as GOP presidential candidates and oil industry backers lambasted the White House for denying the US economy oil and jobs.

“The president demonstrates a lack of seriousness about bringing down unemployment, restoring economic growth, and achieving energy independence,” GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said in a statement.

Newt Gingrich said the decision “weakens America's national security and kills thousands of well-paying American jobs,” while oil industry advocate Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, called the project “essential,” and said, “It must be approved and built.”

Higher oil prices in the Midwest?

But others, including environmentalists who oppose the pipeline mainly because extracting oil from tar sands releases more greenhouse gases than other methods of harvesting oil, also argue the pipeline will do little or nothing to boost US energy security and will actually lead to higher oil prices in the Midwest.

“Rather than providing the US with more Canadian oil, Keystone XL will simply shift oil from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast, where much of it can be exported to international buyers – decreasing US energy supply and increasing the cost of oil in the American Midwest,” concludes a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental advocacy non-profit group, citing numerous TransCanada studies and the transcripts of Canadian federal hearings.

But it’s not just environmentalists who are howling in the wilderness.

“The firms involved have asked the US State Department to approve this project, even as they’ve told Canadian government officials how the pipeline can be used to add at least $4 billion to the US fuel bill,” Philip K. Verleger, president of PKVerleger LLC, a Colorado consulting firm that specializes in research on oil market economics, wrote in a Minneapolis Star-Tribune commentary last March.

US farmers who spent $12.4 billion on fuel in 2009 could see those costs rise to $15 billion or higher if the pipeline goes through, he projects. At least $500 million of the added cost “would come from the Canadian market manipulation,” he wrote.

“Millions of Americans will spend 10 to 20 cents more per gallon for gasoline and diesel fuel as tribute to our ‘friendly’ neighbors to the north,” the highly respected Dr. Verleger wrote. “The Keystone XL pipeline will move production from Canadian oil sands to a deepwater port from where it can be exported.”

But that is not merely Verleger’s opinion. It’s based on findings of the economic consultants hired by TransCanada – contained in their analyses of the pipeline’s impact on Canadian oil producers and in official testimony before Canada's National Energy Board.

“Existing markets for Canadian heavy crude, principally [the US Midwest], are currently oversupplied, resulting in price discounting for Canadian heavy crude oil,” concludes a 2009 analysis on behalf of TransCanada by Purvin & Gertz, Inc., an oil economics firm based in Houston. “Access to the [US Gulf Coast] via the Keystone XL Pipeline is expected to strengthen Canadian crude oil pricing in [the Midwest market] by removing this oversupply. This is expected to increase the price of heavy crude to the equivalent cost of imported crude.”

Gulf link to global markets

As a result of those increases in the price of heavy crude in the Midwest and sales of higher-margin refined products shipped out from Gulf Coast refineries to other markets, Canadian oil producers could be expected to reap $2 billion to $3.9 billion more each year, the analysis says.

“Shippers on the Keystone XL Pipeline have contracted for access to the [US Gulf Coast] market for their oil sands production and refining needs,” the Purvin & Gertz study concludes. “Not only will this directly benefit these shippers, it will also provide a benefit to all [Western Canadian] heavy crude producers by increasing the price they receive for their crude, as well as providing significant pipeline capacity to an alternative market” on the US Gulf coast.

Why Canadian crude oil producers would choose Keystone XL when other pipelines to the US are running well below capacity has much to do with diversifying away from the US market to more lucrative markets in Europe, China, and other Asian countries, Verleger and others argue. Trends seem to support this thesis.

Over the past five years, exports from the US Gulf Coast have soared as refiners sitting in tax-free zones near Port Arthur, Texas, have shifted production away from gasoline and toward higher-margin diesel. Since 2007, overall US exports of diesel and other products have jumped 134 percent, the US Energy Information Administration reports. Of US exports, two-thirds is shipped abroad from Gulf Coast refineries – now more than 2 million barrels a day and up from just a quarter of today's level a decade ago.

That trend was captured in testimony Sept. 17, 2009, before Canada’s National Energy Board. Seven Canadian companies were willing to pay higher pipeline tariff costs for using the Keystone XL pipeline, the testimony showed, in order to bypass Midwest refineries by sending 500,000 barrels per day, the lion’s share of the pipeline’s capacity, to Gulf refineries.

Valve to relieve Midwest oil “oversupply”

In addition to winning higher prices for Canadian oil in the Gulf, the pipeline would boost revenues by shuttling existing oil supplies out of the Midwest – boosting prices, the Canadian study and testimony also show.

“So seven shippers or seven producers are, in your view, pursuing this strategy in order to increase the [Midwest oil market] and Ontario prices. Do I have it right?” D. Davies, a Canadian energy board examiner asked Thomas Wise, the Purvin & Gertz expert who authored the economic analysis for TransCanada.

“If a minority of the barrels were sold at the Gulf Coast at a Gulf Coast price, that would have the effect of raising the price not only in the Midwest and Ontario but in Western Canada,” Mr. Wise responded.

In hearings last May and December, TransCanada officials admitted to US legislators that the pipeline will indeed increase the price paid for Canadian oil in the Midwest – but suggested those higher crude oil prices would not necessarily mean higher gasoline prices in that region.

The pipeline would reduce the “discount on Canadian oil” currently paid by US refiners – an oil price increase for US refineries, Pourbaix said in a congressional hearing last May. Even so, “that crude will still remain the cheapest source of crude by a long shot that U.S. refineries have access to,” he testified.

“If you add significant new supply to a static demand for a product in a market, you should see the price go down,” Pourbaix explained. “So it is my absolute expectation, that over time, with incremental supplies of Canadian crude oil coming into the US market, you will see downward pressure on refined products prices, throughout US markets.”

In his e-mailed response, TransCanada's Mr. Cunha cites a June 2011 report by IHS CERA, an energy economics firm that reached similar conclusions. “Prices at the pump will drop when America’s largest refining region (the Gulf Coast) becomes less dependent on the world’s highest priced crude (OPEC),” he wrote. “Foreign importers will have to cut their prices if they want to compete with the cheaper Canadian crude....  We would argue the overall US price per barrel will drop as refiners pay less for foreign and domestic oil competing with a higher volume of cheap Canadian oil.”

Testimony and supporting documents north of the border stating that Keystone XL would raise Canadian crude prices has set off alarm bells with several US legislators – while leaving others unmoved.

Legislators react to findings

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R) of Kentucky, who chaired two hearings into the Keystone XL, heard positive testimony about the pipeline – as well as contradicting testimony that it would do little or nothing for energy security while raising Midwest oil prices. He still likes the project, however.

“If our president decides that sending aircraft carrier strike groups to the Strait of Hormuz to defend oil flow is in the national interest, then one would also think a pipeline from Canada that would help eliminate our Middle East oil imports also serves the national interest,” Mr. Whitfield said in a prepared opening statement for the hearing he chaired.

In an e-mailed statement, Whitfield's press secretary adds that the pipeline “will help lower the price of gasoline by bringing more oil supply to the market” and says the Department of Energy “specifically states that gasoline prices in all connected markets would go down.”

But Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, was alarmed enough to call last year for a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation into the matter based in part on the Canadian National Energy Board testimony.

“While the full nature of the arrangements agreed upon by the Canadian shippers is unclear, there is clear indication that there is a coordinated ‘strategy’ among Canadian suppliers to gain higher prices,” Senator Wyden wrote Jonathan Liebowitz, chairman of the FTC in an April 6, 2011, letter. “This will have the effect of manipulating supply levels allowing prices of oil refined in [the Midwest oil market] to rise and ultimately benefitting the Canadian companies with higher prices.”

On Thursday, it was Wyden who put forward an amendment to the transportation bill that would have prohibited the sale of the Keystone oil overseas and imposed other regulatory requirements. His amendment was defeated 64 to 34.

Reacting to Obama’s previous decision to bar approval for Keystone XL, TransCanada made it clear it considered the project too vital to delay for long.

“Until this pipeline is constructed, the US will continue to import millions of barrels of conflict oil from the Middle East and Venezuela and other foreign countries who do not share democratic values Canadians and Americans are privileged to have,” Russ Girling, TransCanada's president and chief executive officer said in a statement.

“This project,” he continued, “is too important to the US economy, the Canadian economy and the national interest of the United States for it not to proceed.”

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