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Oil prices are rising, but Canada is getting comparatively less for every barrel — here's why – CBC News

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Oil prices around the world have risen to their highest levels in years, but Canadian oilsands producers are seeing comparatively less for every barrel because of imbalances in supply and demand.

The benchmark North American oil price, a crude blend known as West Texas Intermediate or WTI, was changing hands for $119 US a barrel on Tuesday — within striking distance of the multi-year high of $120.99 US after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February sent the market into turmoil.

WTI is what’s known as a “light, sweet” blend, so-named because it is less dense than “heavy” oils and has much less sulphur content than others that are considered to be “sour” ones. Those chemical qualities make it easier and cheaper to refine, store and ship, which is why WTI has become the prized benchmark for oil prices.

But countless other blends exist, including the type of oil that comes out of Alberta’s oilsands, a heavy and sour mix that’s known as Western Canada Select or WCS. Oilsands crude from Canada almost always trades at a discount to blends like WTI, because it must be diluted before being shipped, and many parts of the world won’t accept it as an import because of its high sulphur content.

It’s also generally cheaper because of the many transportation difficulties with getting it out of landlocked Alberta and into pipelines or railcars bound for refineries on the U.S. Gulf coast.

Typically that discount is about $10-$15 US a barrel, but recent events have pushed the gap to beyond $20. That’s the widest it’s been since November, and close to the $22-spread seen in the very early days of COVID-19 when the price of oil plunged.

That means that even as WTI flirts with $120 US a barrel, Canadian oilsands producers are still only getting $99 US for their product.

There are a few reasons why, but they all boil down to one basic rule of economics: supply and demand. 

Different oil blends require refineries to be calibrated differently to process them, and many refiners aren’t set up to process heavy blends like WCS. During the pandemic, production of many heavy blends slowed to a crawl, which inadvertently helped ensure buyers for WCS.

“For a long time WCS really benefited from the lessened availability of Mexican heavy crude and Venezuelan crude,” said Rory Johnston, founder of oil market data service Commodity Context. “All the other heavy crudes in the region they traditionally competed against, they weren’t there anymore, so WCS was near the only game in town.”

A cup of heavy oil extracted from Canadian oilsands is shown. Canadian oilsands crude always trades at a discount to more prized U.S. blends, but that price gap has widened in recent weeks. (Reuters)

But that’s no longer the case. Production of a heavy Mexican blend known as Mayan crude is surging, as are medium-heavy blends from offshore platforms like Mars and Poseidon.

The result is that refiners who take those heavy blends have no shortage of supply, so they can afford to be choosier on what to pay for it and who to buy it from. 

“You have more options, so you’re not taking as much as you’re used to,” is how energy analyst Fernando Valle with Bloomberg Intelligence describes the mindset of U.S. heavy crude refiners right now.

That demand slowdown is coming against the backdrop of an uptick in supply out of Alberta, too. May is typically a slower month for oil production in Canada’s oil patch because the changing weather results in what Valle calls a “melt-off.”

“It’s hard to move rigs because the ground thaws, so there’s typically a decline,” he said in an interview. It’s why many facilities shut down either voluntarily or involuntarily every spring, but early indications are that production is going to rebound strongly this summer. And all that excess Canadian oil is already starting to pile up. 

Canadian oil inventories are already at their highest level since 2019, and they’re poised to increase this month, according to Bloomberg data. Against the backdrop of that excess supply and lower demand, a widening price gap for Canadian oil makes perfect sense.

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“Inventories in Hardisty, Alberta, are more full than the inventories in Cushing,” Valle said, referring to the oil hub of Cushing, Oklahoma, the central transport hub of the U.S. energy industry, home to about 15 per cent of all the oil storage in the U.S.

“That’s ultimately what that differential is telling you.”

Biden plan will release even more barrels

That imbalance could be set to get worse before it gets better because of a plan announced earlier this year by the Biden administration to release millions of barrels of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to offset the tumult caused by Putin’s invasion.

Almost 40 million of barrels of crude is set to be released to the market starting July 1, the U.S. Department of Energy said last month, and the blend of crude being released is sour, which makes it similar to the type of oil the oilsands offers — and all of it will be released near the cluster of refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast that Canadian producers also sell to.

Although it will happen slowly, at a pace of about 1 million barrels per day, the total planned release is more than 10 times what Canada’s oilsands produce on a typical day, so a market flooded with that much sour crude is likely to drive down the price of Canadian products even more.

“That Alberta stuff is still going to be shipped down there,” Johnston said. “They’re just going to have to discount it more to sell.”

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UN: Multiple famines might be declared in 2022

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Berlin, Germany- Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) has warned of a looming severe global famine if drastic measures are not taken.

Guterres warned that farmers in Asia, Africa and the Americas would be the hardest hit by the rising costs of fertilizer and fuel.

“There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022, 2023 could be even worse. This year’s food access issues could become next year’s global food shortage. No country will be immune to the social and economic repercussions of such a catastrophe,” said Guterres.

In addition, the UN Secretary-General said the Russian attack on Ukraine exacerbated pre-existing problems and called for the release of Ukrainian agricultural products onto the world market to ease shortages as well as debt relief for indigent countries.

“The war in Ukraine has compounded problems that have been brewing for years, climate disruption, the COVID-19 pandemic and the deeply unequal recovery,” added Guterres.

However, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said Western nations are deliberately stirring up tensions regarding Ukrainian grain exports.

Putin said Russia is not impeding exports, and criticized the West for its “cynical attitude” towards the food supply of the developing nations, which have been worst affected by soaring prices. He said rising inflation in the West was “a result of their own irresponsible macroeconomic policies.”

Furthermore, Putin said Russia is ready to provide free passage to international waters for ships carrying grain, adding that Russia had reached an “understanding” on that issue with the UN Secretariat.

Moreso, the Russian President suggested that the Ukrainian military should demine the country’s ports to further facilitate exports, and said “a constructive approach on Kiev’s part” is the only thing that is lacking and cited that Russia itself may be able to export between 37 and 50 tons of grain this year.

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Canada can now seize, sell off Russian assets. What's next? – CBC News

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Selling Russian-owned assets to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction may sound like a logical approach to restitution, but as the Canadian government gains new powers to begin this process, questions remain about how it will work, and whether some issues are headed to court.

C-19, the budget implementation bill, received Royal Assent last Thursday. Among its many measures are new powers to seize and sell off assets owned by individuals and entities on Canada’s sanctions list. While the new powers could be used in any international conflict, the Liberal government’s current priority is helping victims of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Canada’s stepped-up sanctions powers were discussed with U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen during her visit to Toronto last week.

“We think it’s really important to extend our legal authorities because it’s going to be really, really important to find the money to rebuild Ukraine,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told Canadian and American reporters. “I can think of no more appropriate source of that funding than confiscated Russian assets.”

That sentiment was shared by Ontario Sen. Ratna Omidvar who proposed her own Senate legislation to enable similar asset seizures two years ago. At the time she was motivated to help the displaced Rohingya population by sanctioning corrupt generals in Myanmar.

“Kleptocrats must pay for their crimes, not through simply being sanctioned and their assets being frozen, but by their assets being repurposed and confiscated,” said Omidvar.

Although C-19 will work a bit differently than her bill, Omidvar still calls it a “good start” and supports the government’s move. 

“The question no longer is ‘if we should confiscate,'” the senator said. “The question is: ‘How should we repurpose? … Who’s involved? How do we provide accountability? How do we protect ourselves?'”

Test cases expected

Although some jurisdictions, notably Switzerland, already confiscate and return certain illicit assets, this move by Canada — and potentially other G7 countries meeting in Germany this week — is unprecedented.

Allies agree on the imperative of cranking up more economic pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it’s still a risky play. Other hostile governments could seize Canadian-owned assets abroad in retaliation. It also may violate customary international law, such as the UN Articles on states responsibility.

The new powers target assets in Canada owned by an individual or entity on the federal government’s sanctions list. Previously, authorities could seize the proceeds of crime. With C-19, they can confiscate the assets of sanctioned individuals whether they’re acquired legally or illegally.

Is that fair? Omidvar anticipates the new powers being challenged in Canadian court. “I keep thinking we need a couple of test cases,” she said.

The senator’s original bill proposed seizing and redistributing assets by court order, with a judge adjudicating concerns.

C-19 puts more power in ministerial hands, something that is “faster and nimbler,” Omidvar acknowledges, but also less transparent.

During debate in the Senate, Omidvar called on the government to take “politics out of the equation” so Canada would not be accused of inappropriate distribution of funds, “or worse, appropriation of funds for its own use.”

When asked about the legality of these new powers earlier this month, Justice Minister David Lametti said “you don’t have an absolute right to own private property in Canada,” and compared it to other processes of government expropriation.

Adrien Blanchard, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, told CBC News that “necessary checks and balances” are provided in C-19, including a formal judicial process to forfeit any asset.

“Procedural fairness was a key consideration in the development of these measures, and forfeiture proceedings before a judge are not automatic,” Joly’s spokesperson said. 

Privacy rules limit disclosure

Omidvar’s bill would have created a registry with the name of any person or entity associated with a seized asset and its value. There’s no such disclosure requirement in C-19, so this could be a difficult process to track once it starts.

One or more court cases could trigger more public disclosure. 

When the RCMP reported earlier this month that Canadian authorities have frozen the equivalent of $124 million in assets so far, it was unable to reveal what these assets are — cash, bonds, cryptocurrency, corporate shares, real estate or other property — because of the Privacy Act.

The minister of foreign affairs may issue permits on a case-by-case basis to authorize activities or transactions that would otherwise be prohibited, but only to people in Canada or Canadians abroad. When asked if any such permits have been issued related to Canada’s sanctions against Russia, Global Affairs Canada would not comment, again citing privacy concerns.

One of the prominent Russian oligarchs on Canada’s sanctions list, Roman Abramovich, holds around 30 per cent of the shares of Evraz, a global steel manufacturer that employs over 1,800 people at its facilities in Western Canada. 

CBC News asked Evraz North America whether any of its shares or business properties were among assets frozen by Canada so far, but the company did not respond. 

Separate from its powers to seize assets, the budget implementation bill also implements a publicly accessible beneficial ownership registry to make it easier to trace the ownership of anonymous shell companies. That could reveal more about Russian assets in Canada.

However, a business that’s registered provincially instead of incorporated federally would only appear in the national registry if provinces and territories agree to participate — if they don’t agree, there is a potential loophole, Omidvar warned her Senate colleagues during debate.

Who gets the proceeds?

Omidvar’s original bill would have required the recipient of redistributed funds to report back to a court on its use.

C-19 puts the minister of foreign affairs in charge of who gets the money and what happens to it.

“Operationalizing this is going to be a little bit of a challenge,” said fellow senator and former G7 sherpa Peter Boehm. “This is all very, very new.”

The former senior Global Affairs official suggests the government needs to get safeguards in place.

“What is the mechanism? To whom should these assets go? Do they go to individuals? Do they go to state actors?” Boehm said, noting that Canada may want to coordinate with other like-minded countries and UN agencies, like the World Food Program. “There are a lot of questions there… we need to know and the Canadian people would want to know where this money is going and if it’s being properly spent.”

The yacht Amore Vero shown here docked in the Mediterranean resort of La Ciotat, in March, was seized by French authorities after being linked to Igor Sechin, a Putin ally who runs Russian oil giant Rosnef. (Bishr Eltoni/The Associated Press)

The G7 considered asset seizures previously, Boehm said. He expects they could feature in at least behind-the-scenes conversations this week, if not the final communiqué.

“The leaders meetings internationally are timed, I think, very well,” he said.

“Ukraine, historically… has struggled with corruption issues,” said Rachel Ziemba, an adjunct senior fellow with the Centre for a New American Security who advises companies and countries on sanctions policy.  “There have been a lot of strides made… but it’s still not at the level of a developed economy.”

Working through the International Monetary Fund, or setting up a trust fund that would vet recipients and add more reporting to the process could add more certainty, she suggested.

Russian central bank has reserves in Canada

Taxpayers in Canada, the U.S. or other countries don’t want to bear the full cost of this war, Ziemba said, but as governments embark on asset seizures they also have to be concerned about the message it sends on what jurisdictions are safe for foreign investment.

“There are a lot of legal questions ahead,” she said.

According to recent reporting on Russian Central Bank reserves, about $20 billion might be held in Canada — a far more significant sum in the context of Ukrainian reconstruction than the $124 million in frozen assets disclosed so far.

“The Russian Central Bank and some of its investment funds over the last decade [were] really focused on trying to reduce its exposure to U.S. dollars,” Ziemba explains. Canadian reserve assets and government bonds were attractive because they were both stable and got more yield than comparable investments in Japan or the European Union.

In other words: a small slice of Canada’s debt is held by Russia. “The only saving grace is that the amount they have is not so much they can hold much leverage,” Ziemba said.

Russia’s central bank is on Canada’s sanctions list. Should these reserves be seized and handed over to Ukraine too?

Yellen’s argued against doing this in the U.S., even though it could provide more funds to rebuild Ukraine.

“That might send a message to other countries that are investing in [international currency and bond] markets,” Ziemba said — think of China’s buying power, for example. “That, I think, is why the [U.S.] treasury department and even the [U.S. federal reserve] are wary of these moves.”

Are asset sales imminent?

Earlier this month, CBC News asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whether Canada intended to sell the full amount of assets frozen so far. He declined to answer, saying “there are lots of conversations going on” and Canada was “a long way” from deciding how proceeds would be spent.

But when the Senate foreign affairs committee pre-studied C-19 in May, officials said the government will move quickly.

“The intent is definitely to start identifying assets to pursue and to freeze and forfeit them shortly after Royal Assent is received for Bill C-19,” said Alexandre Lévêque, the assistant deputy minister for strategic policy at Global Affairs Canada.

In its report, that Senate committee said the government needs “to monitor on an ongoing basis the ways in which repurposed funds are used and to learn from the early examples of the new powers being implemented.”

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Rodeo group in Alberta sorry for float that critics say was racist

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SUNDRE, Alta. — Organizers of a rodeo in southern Alberta are apologizing for a parade float with a turban-wearing man in a fake beard seated on a manure spreader with the words “The Liberal” painted on the side.

Photos of the float from Saturday’s event in Sundre, Alta., about 80 kilometres northwest of Calgary, circulated on social media. It drew condemnation from a Sikh group in Calgary, which said the float was racist, as well as from some Alberta MPs.

Sundre Pro Rodeo posted a statement from its parade committee on Facebook saying the float had not been approved and had joined the parade without passing through any registration.

The rodeo further offered its deepest apologies, noting the float had been entered as a tractor.

Some people who commented on the apology questioned the accusation of racism, noting the man in the turban and beard, who was not in blackface, was meant to depict federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh as a Liberal lapdog.

Sundre Pro Rodeo said in its posts that it “is committed to ensuring that entries will be reviewed in any future events” to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

“The Sundre Pro Rodeo does not approve the floats for the parade. That is entirely up to the parade committee! If we knew about that float, we would have NEVER approved it!” the organization’s Facebook post read.

“Nobody had a clue that it had such profanity. So we are sorry.”

George Chahal, a Liberal MP representing Calgary Skyview, condemned those responsible for what he called a “despicable display of racism.”

“The Sikh community in Canada, of which I am a proud member, has a wide diversity of political perspectives,” said a post on Chahal’s Twitter account.

“More importantly, Sikhs have been a steadfast force for good in Alberta and across the country.”

Jasraj Singh Hallan, a Conservative MP representing Calgary Forest Lawn, posted the float “should be condemned in strongest terms by all.”

“This is absolutely disgusting. These kinds of acts have no place in Canada,” he said in a Twitter post.

The Dashmesh Culture Centre, a Sikh community group in Calgary, said in a Twitter post that it welcomed representatives from the rodeo and parade committee to visit and learn about Sikhs.

“We need to have serious conversations and actions to stop these forms of racism,” the centre wrote in a social media post.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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