CALGARY – From Alberta oilfields to Bay Street boardrooms to the gas station on the corner, the precipitous drop in crude prices is expected to have far-reaching impacts across the country heading into 2015, making it The Canadian Press Business News Story of the Year.
The abrupt turnaround in oil markets was chosen by half of the 50 editors and news directors across the country who participated in the annual survey.
In explaining their pick, many respondents noted the story’s ripple effects beyond the oilpatch.
Richard Dettman, business editor at News 1130 in Vancouver, said the halving in crude prices over a six-month span created a “gusher of stories” — the hit to federal and provincial government coffers, the plunging loonie and the benefit to consumers, to name a few.
Lynn Moore, assistant city editor, business at the Montreal Gazette, highlighted several ways in which oil’s decline will reverberate across Canada.
“A sustained period of low oil prices will throw a big wrench into the works of the Canadian economy and collective psyche. Beyond the shifting fortunes of governments and companies that have benefited from high oil prices — or suffered from them — the change will surely play a role in climate-change concerns, pipeline expansions and all manner of consumer choices, notably air travel and vehicle purchases. Investors, as well as governments, may also be more interested in portfolio diversification.”
After hitting US$107 a barrel around mid-year, the closely watched U.S. benchmark crude plunged steeply throughout the latter half of 2014. The drop intensified in late November when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, facing increasing competition from surging U.S. shale deposits, chose to maintain its output rather than put a floor under prices.
By the end of December, West Texas Intermediate crude was at its cheapest since the Great Recession, settling Tuesday at US$54.12, up 51 cents for the day in New York.
From the vantage point of consumers, it’s largely a good-news story. The price-tracking website Gasbuddy.com announced earlier this month that the national average for a litre of gasoline had plunged below a dollar for the first time in four and a half years.
“The reality is, outside of the oil and gas industry, the implications of a dramatic drop of the oil price serve as a massive stimulus to the economy,” said Barry Munro, leader of consulting firm EY’s Canadian oil and gas practice.
On a gloomier note, the governments of oil-producing provinces are facing big revenue shortfalls as taxes and royalties from the energy sector shrink. The Toronto Stock Exchange, heavy on energy stocks, has taken it on the chin.
Budgets throughout the oilpatch will be thinner in 2015, with most firms choosing to shore up their balance sheets rather than spend big on new projects. Some are slashing dividends.
Troubled Calgary-based explorer Talisman Energy, which was close to hitting a financial wall in the face of plunging crude, agreed earlier this month to be taken over by Spanish energy giant Repsol in a US$13-billion deal, including debt. Observers expect to see more such deals as struggling energy firms seek an exit strategy.
There are differing views on how sustained the latest rout will be.
Munro calls it a “new price paradigm” triggered by the massive shift in the U.S. energy equation. Oil deposits once thought inaccessible are being tapped with fracking technology, enabling the U.S. to rely on less imported crude to meet its own energy needs.
“I believe that structural changes are underway in the oil and gas business as we move from this world of scarcity to abundance,” said Munro.
Edward Jones analyst Lanny Pendill, on the other hand, sees the imbalances in oil markets sorting themselves out over the next several months, with prices averaging between US$75 and US$95 in the long term. The latest slowdown in activity should curb supplies to the point where prices eventually start to firm up again, he said.
In other words, as the oft-repeated oilpatch cliche goes, the cure for low oil prices might just be low oil prices.
The latest oil downturn is not expected to be as painful as the last one, which was coupled with global banking crisis and frozen credit markets, said Pendill.
“I think people have short-term memories and what they’re failing to remember is we went through a much tougher test back in ’08, ’09.”
The business news story that garnered the second-most votes also hit on an energy theme: the challenges facing new pipelines that aim to carry Alberta crude to coastal waters, and from there lucrative global markets.
Of the 18 votes for pipelines, the lion’s share were from news outlets based in Quebec, where pipeline proposals by both Enbridge Inc. (TSX:ENB) and TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP) to move western crude eastward though the province grabbed headlines.
In March, Enbridge got the green light from the National Energy Board to reverse the flow and carry more crude in its Line 9 pipeline between southwestern Ontario and Montreal. Though work on that project is complete, the NEB has said it will not allow Enbridge to open the pipeline until it’s convinced water crossings will be protected in the event of a spill.
Meanwhile, TransCanada filed an application this fall to build what would be the largest project in its history. The $12-billion Energy East pipeline between Alberta and New Brunswick aims to connect western crude with eastern refineries and new markets across the Atlantic. It would make use of under used natural gas pipe already in the ground for about two thirds of the way, with new pipe being constructed in Quebec and New Brunswick.
Five survey participants chose Burger King’s acquisition of iconic Canadian coffee and doughnut purveyor Tim Hortons as the top business story of the year.
One vote was cast for the projected federal surplus for 2015-2016 and what that means heading into an election year.
For Dave Barry, news director at CKPG – Radio & TV in Prince George, B.C., the biggest business news story of the year wasn’t one of the options presented by The Canadian Press: the Tsilqhot’in Supreme Court ruling in June, which recognized for the first time aboriginal right and title over a specific tract of land in the B.C. Interior.
“The landmark ruling is a game changer for First Nations and natural resource industries in British Columbia and beyond,” he said.
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