It was the first monthly increase since the government of Canada’s largest crude-producing province introduced curtailments on Jan. 1 2019 and highlights the difficult balancing act Alberta faces as it intervenes in the market.
Crude stocks rose 221,000 barrels between the weeks ending March 1 and March 29 to hit 35 million barrels. Inventories are only 2 million barrels lower than record high levels set on Jan. 4, according to Genscape.
Landlocked Alberta is home to Canada’s vast oil sands but struggles to get its crude to markets outside the province.
Congestion on export pipelines last year pushed the discount on Canadian heavy crude versus U.S. barrels to record levels as a glut of crude built up in storage tanks, hammering producer revenues and prompting the Alberta government to impose curtailments.
That move saw the discount on Canadian barrels shrink dramatically at the start of this year to the point where it became uneconomic for many producers to ship crude by rail, effectively cutting off a conduit for crude out of western Canada.
“The narrow differentials spurred by production cut announcements are not wide enough to support rail movements at levels high enough to work off the inventory glut,” Genscape analysts said in a note.
Canadian crude-by-rail loadings were 150,000 barrels per day in March, Genscape said. That was an increase of 6,000 bpd for February, but still around half of what rail movements were in January.
Alberta’s New Democratic Party (NDP) government has leased 4,400 rail cars to start moving 20,000 bpd of crude in July, ramping up to 120,000 bpd by the end of the year when it plans to end curtailments.
The province will hold an election in less than two weeks and Cheryl Oates, spokeswoman for the NDP campaign, said there were many reasons storage may increase in any given month.
“We’re happy to see that the overall trend shows storage inventories are decreasing, (pipeline) apportionment is decreasing and that our plan to curtail and slowly allow for more production as rail and other takeaway capacity comes on line is working,” she said.
Alberta Energy Regulator data released this week also showed inventories in the province rose in February.
(Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Diane Craft)