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Report says pipeline squeeze could be 'devastating' to Canadian economy

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CALGARY - The inability to get western Canadian crude to the right markets is costing the country's economy dearly, according to a new report paid for by the Saskatchewan government.

Each stalled pipeline project means a loss to the Canadian economy of between $30 million and $70 million every day, said the report penned by the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think-tank.

"The economic impact is just devastating," foundation CEO Dylan Jones said in an interview Thursday.

The Saskatchewan government paid $50,000 to commission the report.

Premier Brad Wall has been an outspoken supporter of new pipeline projects, most recently signing a letter, along with 10 U.S. governors, urging U.S. President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

Alberta's oilsands, the third-largest reserves on the planet, get most of the attention when it comes to the pipeline debate.

But Saskatchewan, which has considerable oil resources of its own, is affected by the pipeline pinch as well, Wall said in Regina.

"We hope that this helps get the message out, even to a greater degree than it is now, that we have a pipeline capacity issue in western North America and that's costing Saskatchewan people a lot of money," he said.

"Because of the pipeline capacity issue, we're losing up to 19 to 20 per cent return on the taxpayer's resource."

In recent months, oilsands crude has been trading at a painfully steep discount to both U.S. and global light crude benchmarks. It's a trend that has both eroded oilpatch profits and caused the Alberta government to warn of a $6 billion revenue shortfall this year.

At the heart of the problem is a lack of adequate pipeline capacity to get that crude to the markets that want it most. Proposals of eastbound, westbound and southbound pipelines are in varying stages of development, but environmental opposition and political wrangling makes their fates uncertain.

Most pipeline capacity out of Western Canada heads to the U.S. Midwest, which Jones calls "the worst place in the world to be selling oil" as booming production from areas like North Dakota floods the market.

The Canada West Foundation says new pipelines need to be built in the right directions.

A massive expansion to Trans Mountain and Enbridge's Northern Gateway proposal would enable crude to be transported to Asia via tankers from the West Coast, but they face stiff opposition within B.C. on environmental grounds.

TransCanada Corp. is awaiting final U.S. government approval for the northern leg of its Keystone XL pipeline, which would allow Canadian crude to flow to refineries on the Gulf Coast that are thirsty for heavy oil. Construction on the southern leg between Oklahoma and the Gulf is underway.

Refineries in eastern Canada and the U.S. Eastern Seaboard rely on pricey imported crude from overseas, which is hurting their economics. Both TransCanada and Enbridge have projects in the works to send western crude eastward through reconfigured pipes that are already in the ground. It's possible those lines could extend all the way to New Brunswick, home to Canada's largest refinery.

"If pipeline project proposals such as Trans Mountain, Keystone XL and Northern Gateway don't move forward, Canada will be foregoing $1.3 trillion in economic output, 7.4 million person-years of employment and $281 billion in tax revenue between now and 2035," said Michael Holden, the foundation's senior economist and author of the report.

While most of the benefits would accrue to Alberta, Holden said those three projects would add a combined $84 billion to economies elsewhere in Canada.

The report calls on provinces to work together to tackle the problem, the way Alberta Premier Alison Redford and New Brunswick Premier David Alward did earlier this week in touting an eastbound oil pipeline.

Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign co-ordinator at Greenpeace, says the Canada West Foundation report "misses the point."

"If we want to avoid climate chaos, we have to stop building fossil fuel infrastructure like new tar sands pipelines," he said.

"Canada can, and should be a winner by building the climate-safe, green energy economy that our kids need and deserve."

The Alberta Federation of Labour also has a different view of the issue.

The group said in a report earlier this week that Alberta should require energy companies to upgrade oil in the province before they are allowed to ship it.

Federation president Gil McGowan said the Alberta government continues to approve in situ oilsands projects without requiring associated upgrading, which converts bitumen from the oilsands into light oil refineries can use. That's flooding the U.S. market and driving down the price.

Environmental opposition has been particularly strong to pipelines that would ship oilsands bitumen, the thick, tarry stuff that needs to be diluted in order to flow.

And that alone might force governments to take a hard look at upgrading and refining opportunities at home, said Wall.

"There's all manner of politics, some of it based on reality, some of it not," said Wall.

"If we can't get pipelines built because of it, we just have to start not moving bitumen, but moving a refined product."

— with files from Jennifer Graham in Regina

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