It’s not an easy time to be a tar sands profiteer. Not that it ever really was.
By saying the outlook is dismal now, we risk implying that the outlook was once bright and cheery. Hardly. Tar sands mining has never been economically feasible in the U.S. Tar sands and oil shale upstarts have gone bust decade after decade trying to become the first to turn a profit, leaving destroyed land and devastated workers in their wake.
Now, the financial news headlines put the writing on the wall: We’re watching the death throes of a dying industry. And US Oil Sands is still trying to climb on board.
Countless major financial news outlets spell out the state of the industry in stark terms. The Financial Times writes, “At current oil prices, typical oil sands producers are just covering their operating costs…while companies with higher operating costs are “losing money with each barrel they’re producing” (our italics).
Yes, the big players of Alberta have to keep producing to “weather the storm,” as The Toronto Star reports. Their investors have sunk billions into their projects, so they have little choice but to keep on keepin’ on in hopes of the slightest of upturns. But the upstarts are in a far more precarious—dare we say, impossible—position. Without a prayer of breaking even for, in all likelihood, quite a long time, they need someone to help them play the game of tar sands without a chance of actually bringing in any money.
Nonetheless, in its quarterly report released on August 28, US Oil Sands told investors it will achieve commercial production in the final quarter of 2015, a goal that relies on tight coordination of numerous factors, not to mention the whims of the market. And they’ve announced that they are seeking more funding in part because of the state of the market.
Don’t open your pocketbooks all at once, investors.
In an industry that already has an extremely narrow profit margin, because of its labor- and energy-intensive nature, the projection of success in 2015 seems quite hyperbolic. It’s not just a matter of producing some amount of low-grade fuel. It’s a matter of achieving economy of scale—producing the tremendous amount of fuel needed to eek out a profit. And those are the challenges under stable market conditions.
Let’s put all this in context. The Toronto Star reports, “A report from TD Securities says only two mining and upgrading projects are producing synthetic crude for less than its market price of about $36 per barrel. Analyst Menno Hulshof said more than three-quarters of Canada’s daily output of 2.2 million barrels of crude from the oil sands is being produced at a loss at current prices.”
Reuters reports, “More than three-quarters of Canada’s daily output of 2.2 million barrels of crude from oil sands is being produced at a loss at current prices, research from analysts at TD Securities shows.”
Inside Climate News says: “Since prices crashed, oil companies have delayed or cancelled $200 billion in projects, and nearly 30 percent of those are in the oil sands, according to a recent Wood Mackenzie report.”
Here’s a smattering other stories on the topic:
The Globe and Mail, “Oil sands set for more pain as reductions loom for crude reserves”
CBC News, “Oilsands companies feel the pain as Canadian oil price falls”
Financial Post, “Oil sands brace for more misery as Canadian heavy crude plunges to lowest price in decade”
Edmonton Journal, “Capital investment in oilsands could decline further, CAPP president says”
Wall Street Journal, “Canadian oil-sands producers struggle”
In short, a project that’s already a speculative and high-risk venture has essentially been demonstrated worse than worthless by market forces, and US Oil Sands still seems to think there are foolish enough investors to put their money into this capsizing ship.
The real danger (aside that to investors): In the mad dash to achieve economy of scale and keep investors believing, a start-up company could destroy a vast amount of wilderness and contaminate waterways flowing from it. The operation might fail—like the tar sands mine abandoned in the mid-80s, just over the hill from US Oil Sands’ operation—but we’re left with its toxic legacy.
Couple that with the effects of popular resistance movements on upstart projects, which this study details.
Meanwhile, the realities of climate change—like wildfires and dropping water levels—have recently been limiting tar sands production in the Athabasca region. In Utah, those realities are sure to hit us even harder.
Speaking of weather, did we mention the project sits at 8,000 feet, where it regularly snows in October and winter often lasts six months? Based on the company’s track record of shutting up shop during the colder months, when work is often impossible, we have serious doubts that even under the best of market conditions—and even if everything else were going swimmingly with their project—it would be possible to achieve commercial production in the dead of winter in the Book Cliffs.
So investors, if you’re set on putting your money on the unlikeliest of ventures, have at it. But we think you’re a bit more intelligent than that.