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- Oil’s Changing Landscape: Crude Returns To U.S. Railways- Mar 20, 2011
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a multi-part series examining the fundamentals behind the structural transformation of the U.S. oil markets and the downstream logistics challenges that are resulting. The third installment covered the “disconnect” between inland crudes priced off Cushing crude values when the North American oil hub is flush with crude in storage. (Image Source: CN)
As geopolitical turmoil drives crude prices skyward and lifts retail gasoline to US$4.89 per gallon (/gal) in cities like Los Angeles, it’s anything but business as usual in the U.S. oil patch.
Inland producers who are left in the dust amid triple-digit waterborne crude prices on most every U.S. coast are pioneering inventive downstream logistics to ship crude at low cost to higher-priced markets – thereby avoiding the disconnect in the wild west of North America’s oil industry.
Nearly every multimodal logistics opportunity short of yesteryear’s Pony Express and today’s Federal Express is being considered to cost-effectively ship crude oil to profit from high-price spreads between landlocked and waterborne crudes.
In intra-day trading on March 2, a remarkable spread was logged as the West Canadian Select (WCS) grade saw discount pricing around $80.00 per barrel (/ bbl), while both Heavy Louisiana Sweet and Light Louisiana Sweet (HLS and LLS) crudes on the Gulf Coast traded at more than $122.00/bbl.
That astounding discount of more than $40.00/bbl represents 50% of the then current WCS value. The basis differential can partly be explained by crude quality, but these theoretically, wide-open arbitrage opportunities attract pioneering innovators like the land rush days of old.
Furthermore, the $19.70/bbl discount to LLS prices that day for 38 million barrels of crude stored inland at Cushing at the time represented $750 million in dollar terms.
In the void left by insufficient pipeline takeaway capacity, tankers are stepping in to ship crude via rail and inland waterways away from the heavily utilized and smaller Mid-Continent refining fleet toward a Gulf Coast refining fleet twice its size.
Canadian Railway Company Rides the Rails to the Rescue?
Canadian National Railway Co. (CN), based in Montreal, Quebec, has pioneered and trademarked, PipelineOnRail – described as an “economically sound, surprisingly fast way to ship crude oil products within Alberta to the rest of Canada, the U.S. Midwest, the Gulf coast and other export markets.”
The plan seeks to use its extensive North American rail system that already traverses the Canadian continent on an East-West axis to tank crude south along its interconnected rail spine spanning the U.S. down the Mississippi River valley all the way to and around the U.S. Gulf Coast.
On March 1, Hart Energy contacted CN’s Kelli Svendsen, senior manager of regional public and government affairs, and learned that “CN has been testing concepts to move crude (heavy, light, and pure bitumen) from areas in Western Canada to various markets in the U.S.”
Svendsen said two areas of Canada are already exporting crude oil to the U.S: “CN has moved pure bitumen from Fort McMurray to U.S. markets,” and “from the Bakken reserves in Saskatchewan (Canada) to the U.S.”
The Bakken effort began recently with shipments “in October 2010.” Svendsen said, adding that “CN is optimistic that rail will play an increasing role in the transport of crude moving forward.”
EnSys Study Documents Crude-by-Rail Potential
EnSys Energy noted in a December 2010 North American crude logistics assessment that “CN Rail currently imports condensate, for blending with oil-sands bitumen to make DilBit (a.k.a. diluted bitumen)” from the Kitimat Port on Canada’s west coast.
According to EnSys, the “PipelineOnRail … avoids the large, fixed investments associated with major pipelines.” EnSys also noted that CN indicates potential capacity to move “as many as 200,000 b/d or more.”
EnSys said the study did not allow for the expansion of the PipelineOnRail capacity in any scenario, because tariffs for rail are generally not considered attractive relative to pipelines.
“However, during a period of constrained pipeline capacity, the PipelineOnRail could compete as an alternative,” the assessment reads.
Pioneers on the U.S. Side of the Border
The Bakken petroleum that CN is shipping originates from a producing region that extends into the U.S. states of North Dakota and Montana. Drillers in North Dakota produce the area’s greatest share of petroleum using unconventional hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques.
Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority (PA), wrote in a September 10, 2010, release: “Because of our distance to market, regional producers have always absorbed a per-barrel discount on production.” Yet he noted that recent increases in rail and pipeline “takeaway capacity has pared that discount down substantially.”
Kringstad tabulated new capacity for crude oil shipments from several takeaway projects, including new rail-loading terminals in the area. These include EOG Resource’s 65,000-b/d rail facility in Stanley, N.D., which began rail tanker shipments to Cushing, Okla., in December 2009.
Hart contacted EOG spokesperson K. Leonard on March 1, who shared that “EOG is currently utilizing five trains, with plans to add a sixth in the future.” Leonard said EOG leases the rail tankers it uses to ship crude.
“The company typically loads one train daily and regularly hauls 68,000 gross barrels of crude per train,” Leonard said, adding that “Each train has approximately 100 cars.”
North Dakota PA’s Kringstad further noted in his release that Hess Corp. is readying a $48-million, 60,000 b/d rail facility in Tioga, N.D., for an early-2012 start-up. His post also said that Dakota Transport Solutions began shipping crude from New Town, N.D., to St. James, La., in August 2010. Kringstad said that facility reportedly had the capacity to transport 20,000 b/d by the end of 2010.
Kringstad also noted that smaller rail facilities operate with an estimated combined capacity of 30,000 b/d and include North Dakota locations in Minot, Dore, Donnybrook and Stampede.
Rangeland Energy LLC a New Pioneer
Rangeland Energy LLC (Rangeland), based in Sugar Land, Texas, has also announced plans that would enable Bakken producers to ship crude by rail tanker to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
On March 1, Hart spoke with Chris Keene, Rangeland president and CEO, and learned the company is developing the “COLT” rail terminal hub or connector to ship 100 rail tankers daily (60,000 b/d) of Bakken crude via the BNSF Railway Company to points including the Gulf Coast.
Keene said his company was formed in 2009 and noted: “It’s a huge opportunity, and I think our facility that we are building will be extremely valuable to the industry. It’s been great.”
“There are new rail tank cars being built as we speak. As fast as they can build them, they are being leased. In fact, they are being leased before they build them. Tank car makers, Keene said, have a huge backlog at present – driven by this trend.
Although Keene would not name names, Hart learned that Dallas-based Trinity Industries, Inc., and Oregon-based The Greenbriar Companies, manufacture multi-modal tankers for rail, barge and/or land transport. A review of company disclosures suggested a confirmation of strong backlogs in tanker manufacturers.
The new rail tankers “are coming on because you have a huge demand that has grown not only in North Dakota but also in the Eagle Ford,” Keene added.
Shippers also “are doing whatever they can using existing fleets … a refiner that has an existing fleet of rail cars that maybe they were moving refined products. They convert them and move crude oil,” according to Keene.
“We have not looked at rail into Canada although we have talked with the folks working Saskatchewan’s Bakken trend. Everything we have looked at doing is in and around Williams County in North Dakota where we will be building,” Keene noted. “But certainly the opportunity exists wherever there is existing infrastructure, rail infrastructure, there is an opportunity to do manifest or unit trains.
“Currently, we have a huge draw to get it to the Gulf Coast, into the LLS market,” he said, but “non-traditional” markets for inland crude could soon take the rising flows shipped by rail tanker from Bakken and Eagle Ford producers. “Bakken crude is going to California at Bakersfield right now, by manifest trains, a few cars at a time.”
Keene further mused about the potential for Eagle Ford to flood the Gulf Coast, saying that this could back crude up at Cushing and further back in the Bakken.
“Now you have this rush of light, sweet crude coming on the market; where is it going to go? It’s an interesting story,” Keene said. “It will be interesting to see which refiners run it given that a lot of these refiners just a couple years ago were converting to run heavy, sour crude with investments of billions of dollars.”
Musket Trading Makes The Connection
On March 1, Hart Energy also contacted Oklahoma-based Musket Trading and spoke to Dan House, managing director of crude oil. House said the shifting North American oil industry landscape has “been pretty active as far as the changes that are going on. That creates opportunity, so it’s a good place for us.”
Musket owns and operates rail-served terminals; maintains some 2,000 railcars; provides shipment logistics in 39 states and Canada; and distributes crude oil and other commodities via more than 20,000 railcars annually. That includes crude from the Bakken region to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
House confirmed that rail shipments of Canadian crude are increasingly being talked about and occurring in small batches. “We have done a small amount of it, and I know there are a lot of people looking at it in a bigger way recently,” House said.
Regarding Eagle Ford production, House said producers there yield “a lot more condensate type material that will be railed out of the Eagle Ford. The crude seems to have a good local market, but the condensate volumes that they are talking about do not seem to have a natural home down there.”
Hart also asked House if the Eagle Ford condensate could be sent northward to Alberta’s bitumen producers for use as diluent instead of importing it at Kitimat and shipping it by CN rails to Alberta. House agreed that this opportunity is “most likely” and “that’s where we are seeing it make sense.”
Kirby Inland – Heavy Oil to Crude Tanker?
To obtain the waterborne tank barge perspective, Hart Energy spoke with Steve Holcomb, communications officer for Kirby Corp. in Houston – among the largest inland waterway shippers in the U.S.
According to Holcomb: “We carry very little crude oil. We’ve had a lot of inquiries into it, but they have got to get the product to the Mississippi River or the Arkansas River. So it’s a logistics problem of getting the crude to a river system that is navigable.”
When asked about CN’s rail plan, Holcomb said: “A tank barge would be much more economical way to move it than rail cars. But then, of course, you have to have access to [load the crude] on a viable waterway.”
“Our utilization is pretty high, so we don’t have a lot of barges available, but the industry may have some available … If you move refined products in a barge and you switch it over to crude service, then you have a significant cost of cleaning that barge. You cannot carry a petroleum product upriver and bring crude oil back.
“That doesn’t work. It must be dedicated,” Holcomb said, or the shipper could incur something like “$50,000 to $60,000 to clean it.” That cleaning cost could be justifiable, Holcomb said, if spread-over barrels shipped over a lengthy lease commitment.
“If it’s moved in a black oil barge, it’s a little different. We have 112 black oil barges out of our total fleet of 825,” Holcomb told Hart, noting that such costly cleaning procedures would be unnecessary.
Hart noted the EnSys stance that “rail linked in to barge (or tanker) could also play a role in the transport market. Small volumes of WCSB crudes are currently arriving in the Gulf Coast in part via barge.”
Holcomb offered assurance that “Somebody will figure it out before long. If it involves inland tank barges, Kirby will benefit, because it will tighten up the inland barge market. Barge availability will be much less than what it is today, and rates will begin to escalate.”
According to Holcomb, several other black oil barge firms provide similar services. If Hart Energy makes headway on researching those, they will be covered in a future segment of Hart Energy’s Oil’s Changing Landscape special series.