Canada Wildfires Still Not Reflected in Official Oil Inventories

By: Frank Holmes | Sat, Jun 18, 2016
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Alberta Wildfires

A month and a half after they began, the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta, Canada still blaze on in contained patches. Already estimated to be the most expensive disaster in Canadian history, costing the Albertan economy $70 million per day, the fires are now believed to be the work of humans, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

Regardless of how it started, "the beast," as some call it, has been a major disruptor to oil sands operations north of the fires. Affected exploration companies are looking at a collective loss of more than $1.4 billion. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that an average of 800,000 barrels per day in production were taken offline last month, contributing greatly to May's having the highest monthly level of unplanned global oil supply disruptions since the agency began tracking such data in 2011.

Altogether, 3.6 million barrels per day were lost in May around the world, nudging crude prices up to levels we haven't seen since July of last year.

Month-over-Month Change in Global Oil Supply Disruptions

This month, disruptions caused by the fires are expected to average 400,000 barrels per day. Many companies such as Suncor Energy, ConocoPhillips Canada, Syncrude Canada and Athabasca Oil have returned to the oil sands and are now beginning to pump crude again, but it will be weeks before they resume full production.

Similarly, it will be days before the disruptions "show up" in the official inventories at Cushing, Oklahoma, the largest commercial storage hub in the U.S. When this happens, it might prompt investors to buy crude based on lower inventories, even if only in the short term, helping to lift prices even more.


All Pipes Lead to Cushing

A lot of Canadian oil -- not to mention crude from North Dakota and gas from Pennsylvania -- bottlenecks in Cushing, Oklahoma, where it's all stored and blended. From there it's dispatched by rail and pipelines to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.

Major US Crude Oil Pipelines

Every week, the EIA releases a report detailing crude flows and oil stock levels in each of the nation's Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts, or PADDs, of which there are five: New England (PADD 1), Midwest (2), Gulf Coast (3), Rocky Mountain (4) and West Coast (5). Many analysts and investors pay special attention to PADD 2 because, among other reasons, the overwhelming majority of Canada's crude exports to the U.S. enter through the Midwest district, usually through Chicago, before ending up in Cushing.

Looking at PADD 2, then, gives you a good idea of what percentage of inventory change at Cushing is a reflection of fluctuations in Canada's output.


Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Below, you can see that storage levels in PADD 2 are still above their five-year range, though with a narrower margin than the same time last year. At the tail end of the weekly amount, the line is clearly tapering down -- maybe not dramatically, but it's a good sign that supply and demand could be starting to rebalance, as I discussed in an earlier post.

PADD 2 Crude Oil Stocks

You might infer that at least some of this drawdown is a result of the production outages in Alberta. But the truth is that we probably won't see a meaningful decline until later this month. That's mainly because oil moves at only three to five miles per hour through the Keystone Pipeline, creating a delay of between five and six weeks from the time it leaves Calgary to the time it arrives in Cushing. The other reason is that Canada might have initially exported some of its local inventories to make up for the supply disruption.

Sophisticated investors have already accounted for this time delay. They will also be first to act when the disruption is fully reflected in the EIA's weekly reports.

In any case, lower inventories in the short-term should temporarily help supply and demand rebalance, along with the drop in the North American rig count.

 


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Frank Holmes

Author: Frank Holmes

Frank E. Holmes
Chief Executive Officer
Chief Investment Officer
U.S. Global Investors

Frank Holmes

Frank Holmes is CEO and chief investment officer of U.S. Global Investors, Inc., which manages a diversified family of mutual funds and hedge funds specializing in natural resources, emerging markets and infrastructure.

The company's funds have earned more than two dozen Lipper Fund Awards and certificates since 2000. The Global Resources Fund (PSPFX) was Lipper's top-performing global natural resources fund in 2010. In 2009, the World Precious Minerals Fund (UNWPX) was Lipper's top-performing gold fund, the second time in four years for that achievement. In addition, both funds received 2007 and 2008 Lipper Fund Awards as the best overall funds in their respective categories.

Mr. Holmes was 2006 mining fund manager of the year for Mining Journal, a leading publication for the global resources industry, and he is co-author of "The Goldwatcher: Demystifying Gold Investing."

He is also an advisor to the International Crisis Group, which works to resolve global conflict, and the William J. Clinton Foundation on sustainable development in nations with resource-based economies.

Mr. Holmes is a much-sought-after conference speaker and a regular commentator on financial television. He has been profiled by Fortune, Barron's, The Financial Times and other publications.


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