Will These Pipelines Ever Get Built?

Access to higher paying markets or access denied?

Jun 27, 2014 at 3:54PM

Enbridge's (NYSE:ENB) Northern Gateway Pipeline received conditional approval last week from the Canadian Government with 209 conditions attached that they must meet. The Northern Gateway pipeline would move oil from the Alberta oil sands to the west coast of British Columbia for shipping to the higher paying Asian markets.

Oil sands producers such as Suncor Energy (NYSE:SU) and Total SA (NYSE:TOT) have provided capital to fund Northern Gateway and want to use the pipeline to ship oil to refineries in Asia, where they will receive higher prices than they would from selling to the U.S. Total SA and Suncor recently announced they have shelved their $11 billion Joslyn oil sands project because of rising industry costs. With costs continuing to rise for oil producers, it's no surprise they're hoping to see higher prices for their oil, and being able to utilize the Northern Gateway Pipeline would help in that regard.

Pipeline concerns
The Northern Gateway Pipeline has been highly controversial in British Columbia and Alberta, with Environmental Groups and First Nations, especially those in British Columbia, heavily opposing the pipeline because of environmental concerns. The provincial government in British Columbia has set out five conditions to be met before it will support the Northern Gateway Pipeline.

These conditions are focused on addressing environmental concerns, First Nations rights, and receiving a fair share of tax revenues for British Columbia. While approval for the Northern Gateway Pipeline lies with the federal government, several of the necessary permits Enbridge needs come from British Columbia, so the province could effectively block the pipeline by refusing to provide permits. To further complicate the matter, on a federal level, both the opposition Liberal and New Democratic Parties have said they will reverse the decision if they come to power in the next 2015 election.

Not the end of the world
While the Northern Gateway Pipeline is an important project for Enbridge, it is certainly not a disaster for the company if the project is never completed. Northern Gateway is just one of several major projects that Enbridge is undertaking in order to access higher paying markets. During Enbridge's first quarter results, President and CEO Al Monaco commented, "In 2014 and 2015, we expect to place into service more than $18 billion of projects to expand capacity and extend market access for our customers." With legal challenges already piling up in court, and First Nations vowing to block the pipeline through legal or other means, at least in the near future, Enbridge will likely be spending more time and money in court rather than building the pipeline.

Keystone XL
In the U.S., TransCanada Corp's (NYSE:TRP) Keystone XL Pipeline seems to be stuck in limbo for the time being as President Barack Obama has put off his decision until a later time, citing uncertainty over the pipeline's route because of a Nebraska court decision.

His decision isn't expected to come until after mid-term elections in November. With President Obama focusing more and more on the environment, it seems more likely than before that he will reject Keystone XL. TransCanada appears to have contingency plans in place if there are further delays or they receive a negative response. TransCanada has said they are considering moving oil by rail, which would be a costlier alternative and one that also may be more dangerous for the environment.

Foolish takeaway
While energy companies hope pipelines like Northern Gateway and Keystone XL will eventually be built, there is fierce opposition to these projects from a swath of stakeholders. Energy companies seem to be thinking more and more about alternate methods of getting their oil to higher-paying markets. While getting these pipelines built would increase profits for energy companies, rejection should not hurt their overall business too much, as they will likely find other methods to transport their oil. 

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Charles Sherwood has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Total (ADR). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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