Lost in the media noise generated by Rachel Notley’s announcement that Alberta is chasing a bitumen refinery project was a study from consulting firm IHS MarkIt that was good news for the oil sands. Heavy crude oil demand is growing at the same time competitors are ceding market share to Alberta. Solve the pipeline problem and oil sands producers could be looking at a very rosy future.
“The United States will import more than 3.6 million barrels per day of crude from Canada in 2018, more than the combined imports from all of OPEC. And most of those imports, about four-fifths, will be heavy oil,” said Kevin Birn, vice president, Oil Sands Dialogue.
Canada has met a growing portion of U.S. heavy oil demand as other traditional sources of US supply for that type of crude—such as Mexico and Venezuela—have fallen in recent years.
It has become the largest producer of heavy crude oil in the world and, over the past few years, the only source of significant production growth of heavy crude globally.
The growing supply of Canadian heavy oil, which increased by 1.1 mbd from 2012 to 2017, has managed to offset most of the contraction in heavy oil supply elsewhere to date, the report says. In 2018 the U.S. will import 2.8 mbd of heavy oil from Canada and more is expected in the future.
However, the report does qualify that consolidation in the oil sands industry and lagging infrastructure is expected to slow growth in the coming years and may be a source of uncertainty for US heavy oil demand in the longer term.
“The effect of Canada’s expanding market share has been to shore up the U.S. heavy oil market,” said Vijay Muralidharan, director, IHS Markit. “Absent Canadian supply, heavy oil may otherwise be more scarce and expensive.”
The US is by far the world’s largest refining market for heavy oil, processing more than half of all that type of crude globally in 2018, according to the IHS study.
That capability is the result of investments by US refiners over the past 20 years to process heavier grades of crude, which made the refining sector more flexible and competitive.
Unlike lighter crudes—where the boom in US tight oil production has backed out nearly all offshore imports—US demand for and import of heavy crude oil has continued.