CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - A top risk-management analyst warned on Friday that a decision by Washington on TransCanada Corp's (TRP.TO) Keystone XL pipeline could get delayed again into next summer, adding more pressure to already deeply discounted Canadian oil prices.
The U.S. State Department has said it will rule on the $5.3 billion Canada-to-Nebraska pipeline by the end of March, assuming Nebraska approves a new route that skirts an environmentally sensitive region in the state.
However, Robert Johnston, director of global energy and natural resources for the Washington-based Eurasia Group, said environmental groups will press for public hearings on the department's new environmental impact statement on the project, expected shortly, and push for an Environmental Protection Agency review of the study.
"This suggests a timetable of presidential approval as early as April but quite possibly one that extends until summer," Johnston wrote in a report on how oil sands producers have few short-term options for new market access and price relief.
If it gets the green light start-up would likely be pushed to the end of 2015 from the current estimate of late 2014 or early 2015, he said.
The stakes are rising. Canadian oil is being heavily discounted as production rises and pipeline capacity additions to new and current markets are slow to be added, partly due to regulatory delays. The price of Western Canada Select heavy blend, a widely quoted crude type, sold at times for $40 under the price of benchmark U.S. crude in the past few weeks, triple the spread of just a few months ago.
This week, the Alberta government, which garners about a third of its revenue from the oil industry, warned it may not meet its deficit-elimination target because of the situation.
Now all eyes are on Keystone XL again, four years after TransCanada first applied to build the project, which became a flashpoint in the U.S. debate over the environment and economy.
President Barack Obama rejected the application last year, saying more work was needed to determine a better route around a massive aquifer in Nebraska. Since then, TransCanada split the proposal in two and is now building the $2.3 billion southern section between Oklahoma and Texas.
It re-applied to build the northern part last spring, and still faces staunch opposition from environmental groups that warn of increasing carbon emissions from the tar sands and the risks of pipeline ruptures.
The 830,000 barrel a day pipeline requires State Department approval because it would cross the Canada-United States border. Obama nominated John Kerry, who has supported tougher carbon policies, as successor to Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State on Friday [ID:nL1E8NG0EV].
TransCanada Chief Executive Russ Girling told Reuters this week that the choice of secretary should not affect the chances of approval for Keystone XL, due to the project's importance to U.S. energy security.
Johnston also weighed alternatives for moving crude out of Alberta, including two refineries in Quebec and Atlantic Canada through proposals by TransCanada and Enbridge Inc (ENB.TO).
TransCanada's plan to convert one of its cross-Canada natural gas lines to oil use has more potential than Enbridge's to help cut the price differential, as the latter is aimed at shipping light oil, but both are hampered by a relatively small eastern Canadian refining market. The prospect of international exports, possibly to India, from the region is a "wild card," however, Johnston said.
Exports from Canada's Pacific Coast are still years away, and Enbridge's Northern Gateway proposal also faces heavy opposition from environmental and native groups.
An top industry consultant who assessed the market and trade implications of Keystone XL for the State Department in its first regulatory go-round said he believes it will be approved, but not before Washington pores over every detail as the pressure from environmentalists will only increase.
From a market perspective, the project -- or some alternative offering similar capacity -- is still required, even with booming U.S. output of light oil, Martin Tallett, president of EnSys Energy, said in a recent interview.
The one big change in the market over the past year has been how aggressive railroads have been in stepping in to move oil as pipelines get delayed, he said.
"When we look at the projections and we come up with a balance about where we are four years ahead, our conclusion at the moment is we still do need Keystone XL or equivalent," he said. "And there I come back to the possibly of a TransCanada line through Ontario or a lot of rail capacity."
Reporting by Jeffrey Jones;editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid