Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Chasing tankers in Beautiful British Columbia

The Oilholic has crossed the international dateline and has gone from being 6000 miles east of London in Tokyo, Japan to being 4700 miles west in "Beautiful British Columbia, Canada" as vehicle registration plates in Vancouver remind you with customary aplomb.

It’s a bit cloudy and tad soggy here, a marked contrast to sunny Tokyo. In between meeting family, friends and contacts, yours truly has also penned two Forbes columns – one on the direction of the South Korean economy and a second one on the oil price bottoming out.

This blogger would say it is all well and good that both global benchmarks – Brent and WTI – are lurking at or just below the $40 per barrel level, and some, including the International Energy Agency, are opining that prices may well have bottomed out. While accepting those sentiments is not difficult, China’s anticipated flat demand could spell trouble over the medium term, as one explained in the latter Forbes post

Shipping traffic out of this Canadian province where yours truly is at the moment, typifies the oil and gas world’s dependency on emerging markets in general and Far Eastern economies in particular, led by – who else – but China.

Wherever you admire BC’s amazing shoreline and Vancouver’s beautiful waterfronts – atop Grouse Mountain (above left), Concord Pacific Place in Downtown Vancouver (right), City Harbour inlet (below left), Port Moody or on the other side of the Burrard Inlet from English Bay beach (one's favourite spot) – you cannot miss umpteen oil and gas tankers either waiting to dock or waiting to leave with their crude cargo from the area.

Over the last 12 years on each visit to the area, the Oilholic has only seen the volume of traffic rise exponentially. Unsurprisingly, it causes much consternation among the very strong regional environmentalist groups. Their worst fears were heightened again by the spillage of bunker fuel in April 2015 off West Vancouver’s Sandy Cove.

Prior to that, there have been other incidents, though the most serious one dates back to July 2007 when an excavator working on a sewage line pierced a oil pipeline releasing more than 250,000 litres of crude oil. Nearly 70,000 litres flowed into the Burrard Inlet, with the resulting clear-up costing the province $20 million.

Yet loading and outflow of oil (and gas) from British Columbia, a province which has very little of its own and serves mainly as a transit point, to the Far East is only going to increase not decrease. In the last election, Canada’s new carbon footprint conscious Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals bagged 17 of 42 seats in the province; their best result since 1968.

Some, to quote a retired civil servant and old contact, can be described as “tree huggers”, which is not necessarily a bad thing and there are plenty of trees to hug in BC. Tree huggers or not, Trudeau promptly appointed three of his MPs from BC to his cabinet

But with the Canadian economy going through a lacklustre patch, oil markets grappling with oversupply and China expected to buy less, the stakes are going to get higher even if the Western Canadian Select – which trades at a discount (currently above US$14) to the West Texas Intermediate – goes lower. Quite frankly, there is very little the carbon conscious PM can do here.

Furthermore, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, BC Premier Christy Clark and her provincial Liberals were actually banking on an oil and gas boom in time for a 2017 regional election, eyeing both jobs and revenue.

Instead they, along with much of the oil and gas world, now have a complicated and prolonged bust on their hands, with the general direction of Canadian oil dispatches more than likely to be Eastwards, even if the US remains Canada’s largest trading partner for oil and much else. Just ask neighbouring Alberta; the politics (and economics) of it all is likely to get much more complicated! 

However, given lower demand from both Japan and China, it is quite likely that you might spot marginally fewer tankers in British Columbian waters. The Oilholic does stress on the word ‘marginally’ though, and that won't satisfy the tree huggers. That’s all for the moment from Vancouver folks! Next stop San Francisco, California, USA via short stopover in Phoenix, Arizona. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’! 

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© Gaurav Sharma 2016. Photo I: View of Vancouver from Grouse Mountain, North Vancouver, Photo II: Concord Pacific Place, Downtown Vancouver, Photo III: City Harbour inlet, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada © Gaurav Sharma, March 2016.

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