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Varcoe: Alberta grows testy as Ottawa waves at oil-by-rail plan

Bill Morneau is not getting aboard Rachel Notley's oil-by-rail plan to boost crude shipments out of Alberta

But the federal finance minister did not entirely derail the idea on a short-term way of alleviating the price discount on the Canadian oil producers.

The province is growing testy waiting for an answer.

Alberta's premier recently asked the Trudeau government to consider the assistance of rail cars and locomotives in the amount of crude move out of the province by train as existing pipelines are congested.

Morneau seemed to dismiss the idea last weekend, saying it would take at least nine months to execute such a plan.

Speaking during and after a Calgary Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Morneau asked several times Tuesday if the federal government would pony up money for enhanced rail options.

Like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his visit to Calgary last week, the finance minister avoided a direct response, pivoting to the broader point that Ottawa wants to see its Trans Mountain pipeline expansion built.

"We do not want to divert our resources to ideas that will not actually have an important impact," Morneau said at one point.

Talking to reporters later, the finance minister left the door open to considering the concept, but just barely.

"I know the industry here and the provincial government are talking about other ideas that might have short-and-medium-term advantage," he said.

"We will be a team member in trying to make sure we are considering all opportunities and what the appropriate federal role might be."

Well, team member, it's time to grab the chequebook if Ottawa really wants to tackle the price differential.


At the provincial legislature, Alberta Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd criticized Morneau and his federal counterparts for not embracing the idea.

While both provincial and federal governments are pushing for Trans Mountain, the oil-price discount is creating a crisis and "we need some solutions," she told Postmedia's Clare Clancy.

"He does not seem to get it," the energy minister said.

"It's super disappointing and I think it's too tone deaf. I do not know what it's going to take the issue that's serious here in Alberta and we need help.

"But, at the end of the day, if the feds are going to forget about Alberta, our government is not."

That means the province will have to spend millions of dollars and buy rail cars and locomotives itself to move the plan forward.

Rail has emerged as a friction point between the federal and provincial governments as they both navigate the problem of Canada's inability to get its oil resources to market.

The price differenceial between Western Canadian Select and benchmark U.S. crude prices sat at US $ 38.19 a barrel on Monday.

The provincial government estimates the discount is costing the Canadian economy up to $ 80 million a day.

With no new pipelines expected up next next year – and the future of the Trans – expansion and the Keystone XL project is in the air – rail remains the one of the few available options to transport capacity, if additional locomotives and cars are found.

Record amounts of crude exports are already moving by train, averaging 270,000 barrels per day in September.

The province's proposed business plan for the partners would spend $ 350 million on fixed capital costs, with an estimated operating cost of about $ 2.6 billion over three years, starting next July, according to one government source.

It projects generated from shippers would be about $ 2 billion, while Ottawa would see increased federal revenues to the tune of $ 1 million from the the improved price differential.

Two new unit trains, capable of moving about 120,000 barrels per day out of Alberta, could help the situation, though it would take time to order new locomotives.

Industry groups such as the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada (EPAC) back the province's proposal.

Buying new locomotives and rail cars is not a short-term fix to the oil crisis in part, Ottawa says, because it will take at least a year to get the new trains in place.

Elaine Thompson / Canadian Press / AP

While it will not come online for several months, it will still improve oil transportation options out of Western Canada over the mid-term.

"It's a fantastic idea and is a serious option that should be considered, given the policy problems we've been putting in pipe," said EPAC president Tristan Goodman.

For producers that are not big enough to sign long-term shipments, they will have some form of government backstop or aid unless it has more cars or locomotives.

The issue of rail cars is coming to a boil as the Canadian oil produces chaos for government finances, and the revenues of petroleum producers.

Credit rating agency Moody's Investor Service said this week it expects the historically wide price differential will lead to a larger-than-forecast-to-deficit this year.

"Without successful government policy measures, (it) could delay its timeline to return to balance," said Adam Hardi, Moody's assistant vice-president.

The Notley government projects this year's deficit will hit $ 7.8 billion, and has insisted it will return to a balanced budget by 2023-24.

Expected to hear more about the rail alternatives when the Premier speaks Wednesday to the Canadian Club of Ottawa, and to the Toronto Region Board of Trade the following day.

The province's oil-by-rail plan is still chugging along, albeit slowly, with Alberta hoping to gain momentum for its proposal.

So far, however, Ottawa seems content to let this slow-moving train pass on right by.

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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