Oilands bitumen prices are actually in negative territory, analyst calculates

CALGARY — A financial analyst says prices being paid for Western Canadian oilsands bitumen have fallen so far that producers are losing money on every barrel sold into the spot market.

Analyst Matt Murphy of Tudor Pickering Holt & Co. says recent headlines have been focused on the falling value of the Western Canada Select price, but that measure is for a blend of heavy, sticky bitumen and the light oil needed to dilute it so it can flow in a pipeline.

The price of WCS fell to about US$19 per barrel on Thursday, about US$52 per barrel below the benchmark U.S. West Texas Intermediate price.

But Murphy says the condensate used to dilute the bitumen was selling for about US$63 per barrel at the same time and that means the bitumen part of the WCS barrel was actually fetching between negative 11 cents US and negative 28 cents US per barrel.

It’s the first time that has happened, he says, adding bitumen prices have always been in positive territory — even in early 2016, when U.S. oil prices fell below US$30 per barrel.

He says he expects the negative pricing situation to be short-lived, however, as demand will increase when U.S. refineries complete fall maintenance and growing crude-by-rail capacity will help bring barrels to market that can’t fit into Canada’s full pipelines.

Different types of bitumen need differing amounts of diluent to flow in a pipeline, with the newest mining projects such as Suncor Energy Inc.’s Fort Hills mine requiring 10 to 25 per cent diluent and steam-driven projects that produce from wells needing 30 to 40 per cent diluent, he said.

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