The future price of crude oil is very important to the Canadian economy and to investors in the Toronto stock market (TSX). The Canadian oil patch represents a 25% weighting in the overall index. Over the past few months, we have seen a massive sell-off of oil sands assets by foreigners.
In March, Royal Dutch Shell and Marathon Oil sold stakes in the Alberta oil sands project to Canadian Natural Resources for $12.7 billion. Marathon sold its 20% stake in the project for $2.5 billion. Later in March, Conoco Phillips sold their partnership in the oil sands to Cenovus Energy for $17.7 billion.
Reuters reported last week that BP is considering the sale of its stakes in three Canadian oil sands projects.
“BP’s 50 per cent stake in the Sunrise project near Fort McMurray in Alberta, where Husky Energy Inc owns the rest and is the operator, is the most valuable of the three assets. It also owns a 50 percent stake in Pike, operated by Devon Energy Corp, which is still awaiting a final investment decision, and is majority-owner of the Terre de Grace oil sands pilot project.”
Also in the news is Chevron was exploring the sale of its 20% stake in Canada’s Athabasca oil sands project which could fetch $2.5 billion.
“Faced with a lower oil price environment and challenging economics, which include high cost operations and carbon taxes, global players are increasingly put off by the oil sands.”
Extracting oil from the vast majority of Canada’s oil sands is a very labor and capital intensive process. It requires much higher crude oil prices to justify the more expensive extraction method. Global players exiting their oil sands positions could be a warning sign that the price of oil getting above the $60 level is overly optimistic.
The upcoming IPO of Saudi Arabia’s state own oil company (Saudi Aramco) is another warning sign that the price of oil could be range bound. The company’s oil assets are valued around 2 trillion dollars. It begs the question; why would Saudi Arabia sell part of its state own oil assets to investors?
The simple answer is the Saudi’s need more revenue to pay for their government spending programs. I believe that this is another warning sign that the price of oil will stay lower for much longer. OPEC’s current production cuts are aimed at stabilizing the oil market so that the Saudi Aramco IPO will be successful in raising much need cash for Saudi Arabia.
The key question for the future of the oil market is for how long can a surge in U.S. shale supplies make up for the slow pace of growth elsewhere in the oil sector. The 5 year chart below illustrates the returns on owning two different oil ETFs. You would have lost money owning the Canadian oil ETF (XEG) and you would have broken even on the Spider ETF (XLE).
In my humble opinion, long term buy and hold investors should avoid oil stocks. I have been bearish on Canadian oil companies for a long time because our oil and gas is land lock. Our only customer is the United States and they have already put a 20% tariff on softwood lumber. There are growing tensions around renegotiating NAFTA which could lead to a tariff on Canadian oil. Oil stocks are still trade-able but you need to be very nibble.
Do you agree or disagree? All comments are welcomed.
Disclaimer: This post is for discussion purposes only, do your own research before you invest.