Crude and Socially Acceptable

Markets have an interesting way of defying politicians. Although the Obama administration has deferred a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until the president’s final year in office, that hasn’t stopped Canadian crude from finding a way to get to market.

You have to admire the speed and ingenuity with which the private sector manages to work around the whims of politicians and the apparatchiks who serve them. No rule-making bureaucrat could ever hope to keep up.

With production from prolific U.S. shale plays crowding out Canadian crude from key pipelines and no Keystone XL to alleviate the bottleneck, oil producers began shipping crude by rail, barge and even truck.

Unfortunately, not only are these methods slower and costlier than pipeline transportation, they can also be much more dangerous. The Lac-Megantic tragedy in 2013 underscores why it’s preferable to ship energy products via pipeline: An oil train carrying Bakken crude derailed in the small Quebec town, resulting in a fire and explosion that killed 47 people.

Nevertheless, the rolling pipeline keeps on rolling. Now that crude oil production in the U.S. shale plays is finally on the decline, foreign oil is suddenly in demand again.

And if we’re not going to be completely energy self-sufficient, then we may as well get our oil from a friendly nation, such as our mild-mannered neighbor to the north. Canada is the world’s fifth-largest producer of oil, and the vast majority of its crude gets shipped to the U.S.

In fact, after plunging during the first half of the year, exports of Canadian crude to the U.S. hit a new all-time high in August, at 3.4 million barrels per day, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Even before crude oil prices collapsed, Canada’s share of U.S. oil imports began to rise, as demand for costlier oil from overseas declined in the wake of the Shale Revolution.

Canada’s lower exchange rate has also given a big boost to U.S. demand for its energy products, both in terms of volume and market share.

The currencies began to diverge in mid-2013, as it became apparent that each country’s central bank was headed in an opposite direction on interest rates.

Since then, the Canadian dollar has dropped nearly 21%, all the way down to USD0.76. That’s a far cry from the heady days less than three years ago when the loonie traded above parity with the greenback.

But it’s helped Canadian crude grow from 30% of total U.S. oil imports in mid-2013 to 45% as of the end of August, despite the fact that total oil imports are only 1.3% lower than they were at the beginning of this period.

Equally impressive, the volume of U.S. imports of Canadian crude has jumped nearly 46% over that same period, outpacing Canada’s production growth of 22%.

As such, two things are clear. Though Canada desperately needs to develop new export markets for its energy products, it’s still managed to steal U.S. market share away from foreign competitors. And while it takes time for a lower exchange rate to pump up an economy, the turmoil in Canada’s energy sector would obviously be even worse without it.

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