Cheap oil contagion is clear and present danger to Canada

CALGARY - A war between Russia and Saudi Arabia for market share for oil may have been triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic in China, but the cheap oil contagion that it will spread could have impacts that last longer than the virus.

The prospects for Canada are not good.

Plunging oil prices, reduced economic activity from virus containment, and the fallout from weeks of railway blockades over the Coastal GasLink pipeline all add up to “a one-two-three punch that I think is almost inevitably going to put Canada in a position where its growth has to be negative,” said Dan McTeague, a former Liberal MP and current president of Canadians for Affordable Energy. The situation “certainly has the makings” of a recession, said Ken Peacock, chief economist for the Business Council of British Columbia.

“At a minimum, it’s going to be very disruptive and we’re going to have maybe one negative quarter,” Peacock said. “Whether there’s a second one, where it gets labeled a recession, is a different question. But it’s going to generate some turmoil and challenges over the next two quarters – there’s no doubt about that.”

RBC Economics on March 13 announced it now predicts a global recession and cut its growth projections for Canada's economy in 2020 by half a per cent.

Oil price futures plunged 30% last week, dragging stock markets and currencies, including the Canadian dollar, down with them. That drop came on top of a 17% decline in February, due to falling demand for oil due to the virus.

The latest price plunge – the worst since the 1991 Gulf War – was the result of Russia and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), led by Saudi Arabia, failing to agree on oil production cuts.

The COVID-19 outbreak in China – the world’s second-largest oil consumer – had resulted in a dramatic drop in oil demand in that country, and a sudden glut of oil.

OPEC has historically been able to moderate global oil prices by controlling output. But when Russia refused to co-operate with OPEC and agree to production cuts, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned company, Aramco, announced it plans to boost its oil output from 9.7 million barrels per day (bpd) to 12.3 million bpd in April.

In response to that announcement, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) prices dropped 18% to below US$34 per barrel while the Canadian Crude Index fell 24% to US$21. Western Canadian Select dropped 39% to US$15.73.

The effect on Alberta oilsands producers was severe and immediate. Cenovus Energy Inc. (TSX:CVE) saw roughly $2 billion in market cap erased on March 9, when its stock dropped by 52%, which came on top of a 12% drop March 6.

The company responded the very next day by announcing it would cut spending by 32% in 2020, suspend its oil-by-rail program and defer expansion projects.

MEG Energy Corp. (TSX:MEG), which suffered a 56% share price drop on March 9, also announced a 20% reduction in its 2020 capital spending plan.

Peter Tertzakian, chief economist for ARC Energy Research Institute, wrote last week that Russia’s plan is to try to hurt U.S. shale oil producers, who have more than doubled U.S. oil production over the past decade.

Anas Alhajji, a global oil analyst, expects that plan could work. Even before the oil price shock, he had predicted the great shale boom in the U.S. was coming to an end.

“Shale production will decline, and the myth of ‘explosive growth’ will end,” he told Business in Vancouver. “The impact is global and Canadian producers might suffer even more if the oil that Saudi Arabia sends to the U.S. is medium and heavy. This might last longer than what people think.”

The question for Alberta is how Canadian producers can continue to operate through a period of cheap oil. Alberta producers do not compete on the global market. They serve a niche market of U.S. heavy oil refiners.

“On the positive side, the industry is battle-hardened,” Tertzakian wrote. “Over the past five years, innovative companies have already learned to endure some of the lowest prices in the world.”

But he added that they need WTI prices of US$30 per barrel just to break even.

“But that’s an average break-even threshold for an industry with a wide variation in costs. That means at that level about half the companies can’t pay their bills and half are treading water.”

Just prior to the oil price plunge, the International Energy Agency (IEA) updated its 2020 forecast for global oil consumption from an 825,000 bpd increase in oil consumption to a 90,000 bpd decrease, due to the COVID-19 virus and consequent economic contraction and reduction in travel.

The IEA predicts global oil demand won’t return to “normal” until the second half of 2020. But even if demand does return to pre-virus levels, that doesn’t mean oil prices will – not if Saudi Arabia can sustain increased oil production at low prices.

The oil plunge was greeted in Alberta with alarm. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney warned Alberta is in “uncharted territory” and said his government might have to review its balanced budget and resort to emergency deficit spending.

While British Columbians – who pay some of the highest gasoline prices in North America – will enjoy lower gasoline prices at a time when prices are usually starting a seasonal spike, B.C.’s economy could feel knock-on effects from a recession in Alberta.

“We sell a lot of inputs, do a lot of trade with Alberta, so it’s important for B.C., Alberta’s economic health,” Peacock said.

Last week, the Trudeau government announced $1 billion in emergency funding to cope with the virus and waived a one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance.


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