Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s decision to invest in the Keystone XL pipeline project is the kind of good news the industry needs right now.
But the question is will the federal government follow suit?
Kenney told reporters earlier this week that the provincial government will take a $1.5 billion equity stake in the project as well as provide a $6 billion loan guarantee to enable TC Energy to get moving on construction and ensure it continues.
The premier said that the deal was six months in the making and he hoped the deal would give the economy a boost at a time when it is reeling from the effects of the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia and the loss of demand caused by the corona virus outbreak.
There’s no question the industry is hurting. The Saudis are pumping oil at a rate of 12 million barrels per day (bdp) in an effort to steal market share from the Russians and crush shale oil production in the United States. But global demand for oil has fallen from 100 million bpd to 80 million bpd.
In other words, the world is awash in oil. That oversupply is depressing prices. West Texas Intermediate is hovering around US$20 per barrel while Western Canada Select (what producers in Alberta get) has dropped below US$5.
At those prices levels, North American producers cannot make money pumping oil.
As for the Saudis, they can push prices even lower. It only costs them about US$10 a barrel to pump oil out of the ground.
The problem for the Saudis, however, is that they can’t sell their oil even at these low prices. They might not even be able to give away oil right now.
With the world basically shut down because of the Wuhan virus, major importers have begun taking the unusual step of refusing shipments.
India’s refineries, for example are turning back shipments because demand has fallen. Gasoline sales are down eight per cent, while diesel was down 16 per cent.
US President Donald Trump is meeting with oil CEOs this week to come up with a plan to address the twin threats facing the sector. The president has already made it known that he is not willing to allow American producers to go under.
The president has committed the country to buying domestic oil to replenish its strategic reserve, but industry watchers are also expecting Washington to slap hefty tariffs on Saudi oil and offer bridging loans to keep companies afloat until demand returns.
In Canada, only Kenney appears to understand what’s at stake.
And make no mistake about it, there’s a lot at stake.
The energy sector contributes 11 per cent to the country’s GDP. Alberta alone contributes $76 billion toward the national GDP.
The oil and gas sector directly employs about 170,000 people and indirectly employs another 500,000.
Oil and natural, too, are two of our biggest exports, worth in excess of $119 billion.
Most of the oil and natural gas exported, however, is shipped to the United States. Fully 95 per cent is exported to American refineries.
That’s why the Keystone XL pipeline is of such great importance. The pipeline will feed the Gulf Coast refineries.
Successive Alberta governments have also understood that our reliance on the US needed to be addressed, that new markets needed to be developed.
That is the rationale behind TransMountain. It was the rationale behind Northern Gateway and Energy East.
Unfortunately, the latter two pipelines were canceled by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and any future pipeline construction was effectively curtailed by onerous legislation.
With that Alberta and Canada have lost billions of dollars in investment at a time when we will need investment dollars to come out of virus induced depression the likes of which we have never seen.
There are, of course, elements within Canadian society that are cheering the predicament in which energy producers find themselves.
Politicians on the Left are arguing against any efforts to keep the industry alive during these difficult times and calling for investment in renewables.
This is the time, they argue, to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.
It’s a foolish argument. First, demand for oil will recover. Current demand is about 100 million bpd. It is expected to rise by another 20 million bpd by 2050. At that point, demand will likely level off. Second, renewables are a dead end. The wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. There is just no getting around that fact.
In other words, there will be a demand for Canadian oil for decades to come, if we do not kill off the industry.
That’s the big if. Trump gets it. Kenney gets it. Will Trudeau finally see the light?
Will the rest of Canada?
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As Canadians and other nationalities cling to the hope that the next 30 days may bring some respite from the Wuhan virus pandemic, news coming out of China suggest we may have to endure this Hell for many months to come.
The problem is that Chinese officials have been fudging their data. According to classified Chinese documents seen by the South China Morning Post, the number of silent carriers – people who are infected by the virus but show delayed or no symptoms – could be as high as 33 per cent of those who test positive.
Chinese officials have never included the asymptomatic numbers in their “official” counts of virus victim. The official count has been roughly 80,000, but if the silent carriers are included it would bring the total up to 120,000.
Therein lies the reason why even though China claims to have flattened the curve and has put the outbreak behind them, factories and public events have had a hard timereopening.
It is the asymptomatic carriers of the virus who continue spreading the disease, according to medical experts who assert there will be second and third waves of the outbreak.
The World Health Organization had initially said that asymptomatic transmissions were extremely rare, but that overly optimistic finding looks more like propaganda today and recent studies suggest that it is responsible for the ease with which the virus spreads.
All of which means that health officials cannot let down their guard. China will see a spike in their numbers in the days to come and further lock downs will be necessary.
“The number of novel coronavirus (Covid-19) cases worldwide continues to grow, and the gap between reports from China and statistical estimates of incidence based on cases diagnosed outside China indicates that a substantial number of cases are underdiagnosed,” a group of Japanese experts led by Hiroshi Nishiura, an epidemiologist at Hokkaido University, wrote in a letter to the International Journal of Infectious Diseases in February.
Based on their research, Nishiura put the proportion of asymptomatic Japanese patients evacuated from Wuhan, ground zero of the outbreak in China, at 30.8 per cent – similar to the classified Chinese government data.
That, in turn, means for countries in the midst of their own outbreaks that it will take considerably more time for the virus to “burn” itself out than 30 days.
It also means we should be stopping air travel to and from other hotspots lest we import yet new strains of the virus than keep the outbreak rolling along.
Again, testing is the key. All countries need to test a random sample of their populaces to get a better idea of how widely the virus has spread and to better gauge how quickly we can return to some semblance of normality.
How is it that isolation and quarantine are supposed to work at the municipal and regional levels but not at the international levels?
Think about it. When news of the Wuhan virus first broke in December, those of us who keep tabs on things that might kill us were truly alarmed.
Students of history know full well that China is a vast petri dish of pathogens just waiting to infect the world and kill an un-Godly number of us.
From the Black Plague to the current SARS-CoV-2 (Wuhan virus), China has been killing millions upon millions upon millions of people for hundred upon hundreds of years.
In fact, the last deadly virus, the Spanish flu, once thought to have originated in the United States is likely to have started in China, according to new research.
China is a hot bed of pathogens for a number of reasons. First, there is an incredible density of people. Second, all those people live in close proximity to poultry and pigs. Third, the Chinese have a taste for wild animals that harbor deadly pathogens.
None of this is news to medical researchers. It’s the reason the World Health Organization has teams in China monitoring viral outbreaks.
Now, the WHO and Chinese health authorities are supposed to spring into action to contain these outbreaks and stop them from spreading.
So far so good. But what I don’t understand is why governments do not shut down domestic and international travel to and from affected areas at the first sign of trouble?
It’s Chinese travelers that brought the disease to North America, after all. In the case of the deadly Washington state outbreak that ravaged nursing homes, the virus was traced back to one man traveling from Wuhan.
One man. Let that sink in.
Researchers now have the ability to track the various strains of viruses so they know that the current outbreak in New York can be traced to travelers from Wuhan and also Europe.
Oddly, the health authorities do not think restricting international travel at the first sign of trouble does any good.
The argument is that the world is now so connected and international travel is so common that restrictions don’t make much sense. It is better to track than prohibit.
Then why are we locking down our cities and restricting travel in our countries today?
That’s the question that we need to ask of our health officials and politicians.
At this point, it’s pretty damn clear that had we quarantined China when this virus was in the Wuhan community, we would have spared ourselves one helluva lot of suffering.
That’s not hindsight. A lot of us saw the freight train coming. We were calling for travel bans, for quarantines of China. We were called racists and bigots.
It’s hard to believe that so many people were reacting with glee upon hearing the price of a barrel of Western Canada Select (WCS) oil had dropped below $5 and was approaching $4.18 as of this writing.
It was to the haters of Alberta and the oil sands or fossil fuels in general a portent of things to come, an inevitable tumble on the path to the brave new world of renewables and an electrified future.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
WCS is the price Alberta and Saskatchewan oil producers get for their product. It has always traded lower than oil from other producing regions.
Now, thanks to the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, the price of all oil has been driven down. West Texas Intermediate is trading at US$20.47, even Brent is trading at $US26.42.
It was not too long ago, 2007 to be precise. that WTI oil was fetching close to US$140 a barrel.
Between the shale oil explosion, OPEC and Russia, the world finds itself awash in oil.
This became problematic when the corona virus pandemic knocked the stuffing out of the global economy and, hence, the demand for oil.
With WCS trading at these levels, price poses an existential threat. At $5 per barrel, producers cannot make any money. It’s as simple as that.
A good number of people think that the low WCS price reflects the oil’s lack of quality.
Not true. Maya oil is about the same quality as WCS, but it trades for twice the price as the latter.
It is proximity to refineries and the lack of pipeline capacity which depresses WCS. California’s heavy oil (yes California pumps oil) goes for a good price because the refineries are right next door. That’s why Mexican oil commands a good price as well.
With refineries in Montana and on the West Coast at capacity, oil producers here need access to Gulf Coast refineries or East Coast refineries.
That’s why Keystone was and is so important. That’s why TransMountain is so important. That why Northern Gateway (now canceled) was so important. That’s why canceled Energy East was so important.
Those pipelines would have allowed producers to get product to market – the key to lifting the WCS price.
For Canadians who think that the death of the oil industry in Canada is a good thing, they would do well to remember that even if the oilsands disappear, the demand for oil will not.
It is expected to grow up until 2040 and is likely to plateau at that point. Demand for oil will always be there simply because it is extremely hard to find substitutes.
After all, if replacing fossil fuels with renewables were easy, all countries would have no problem meeting their 2030 goals contained in the Paris Climate Agreement. But not one country will meet them.
In other words, prices will recover and if we can get pipelines built, we stand to benefit from meeting that demand. If we don’t produce oil to meet global demand, other countries will.
All this, of course, requires a federal government that is concerned about economic development and is not in the thrall of the climate alarmists.
It is hoped that the current pandemic, which is devastating our economy is a wake up call. We can ill afford to forego any opportunity to bring in foreign currency – not unless we want a 50 cent dollar.
While many economists and politicians are predicting a rapid recovery once the Wuhan virus outbreak has subsided, their optimism seems premature.
I suspect most politicians think that their predictions of a rosy outcome once all this is over is helpful and will calm people’s fears.
And the fear is palpable. It’s the reason people have begun hoarding items they think are essential to their peace of mind in the coming weeks. It’s the reason we see people breaking down in tears or lashing out. We have even seen suicides.
The recovery, however, is going to depend on a lot of factors over which we have little control and on whether governments have an exit strategy.
To give you an indication of the depth of the problem, economists were predicting that the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits would be around 1.5 million. To their shock it was more than three million.
As it stands now, the United Nations is estimating that the losses in global GDP (GWP) are upwards of $1 trillion.
That’s probably on the low side. Global world production (the combined GDP of all nations) is about $127 trillion. So it’s difficult to believe that the virtual shut down of global production has amounted to less than one per cent of GWP.
We won’t know the full impact of the virus’ impact on the economy for another few months, but the longer this goes on, the harder it will be to recover.
How much longer will it go on?
Health officials in the United States are talking about another 30 days of isolation and lock downs before the worst is over.
To judge by the European example, that may be too optimistic.
Let’s hope it is only another 30 days of Hell, because if it goes on for months, getting back to normal will be next to impossible.
The reason being that there are not too many businesses that can survive without revenue for three months.
There are even fewer families that can survive a month, let alone three months, without income.
It’s a cascading effect that is devastating. Once the link between employer and employee is broken, restoring it is hard.
This crisis is unlike the 2008 financial crisis. That was basically a liquidity crisis which the central banks could resolve.
But how do you revive businesses that have gone bankrupt? How do you bring back production?
China is going through that right now and it’s clearly having problems. It’s trying to jump start production but it’s not working.
That’s why you need an exit strategy. You need to get people working sooner rather than later and you need to do it while still protecting the most vulnerable.
It all comes down to treatment, vaccine and testing.
An effective treatment would reduce mortality and get people back on their feet quickly. That is being worked on.
A vaccine will be long in coming. In the past, it’s taken a year or more to get one out to people. Can the timeline be shortened?
Failing all that, you need fast, reliable tests for the virus. And you need to keep testing on a regular basis.
With that kind of testing, you can offer people a chance to return to work and still protect the elderly and those with underlying illnesses.
We’ve got to get people working again. There’s no two ways about it.
When discovery of the SARS virus was made, the vast arsenal of the WHO was brought into play. Within short order, the Director General Gro Harlem Bruntland made history by declaring the first travel advisory in 55 years on April 2, 2003.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) today began recommending that persons travelling to Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China and Guangdong Province, China consider postponing all but essential travel. This updated travel advice comes as a result of new developments in the multi-country outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).”
The travel advisory’s purpose was to limit the international spread of the deadly virus which had already taken hold in a number of countries, including Canada, as some may remember.
Bruntland also made news for doing one other thing. She slammed China for endangering global health by attempting to cover up the outbreak by arresting whistleblowers and censoring the media.
She had every right to be angry. The SARS virus had been discovered in China in November of 2002 but the WHO had only been allowed access to the area where it had been found in April of 2003.
Now contrast Bruntland’s stern measures, her anger, her demands for openness with the action of the current Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
While Bruntland was fierce advocate for the world and an equally fierce critic of China, Tedros is a fierce critic of the world and an advocate for China.
“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is WHO’s highest priority,” said Dr Tedros. “We appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated, including sharing data and genetic sequence of the virus. WHO is working closely with the government on measures to understand the virus and limit transmission. WHO will keep working side-by-side with China and all other countries to protect health and keep people safe.”
China, however, had not changed any of its old ways. It actively suppressed news of the outbreak in Hubei and was busily arresting people.
Tedros went a step further and criticized other countries and called upon them to NOT limit travel to China, warning against the “recrimination or politicization” of the outbreak.
More, Tedros did not declare a public health emergency of international concern despite acknowledging it was an emergency within China, even though it had already spread to other countries.
All of this is important because health officials around the world take their cue from the WHO. If it does not advise travel restrictions, they will not advise travel restrictions.
I know, I know. It sounds bizarre, but that’s the state of modern science. No one thinks independently any more.
Given WHO’s critical importance in these matters, it might be a good idea to ask what changed between 2003 and 2020?
There is little question that Tedros is sympathetic to China. He embraces China’s one-China policy and allowed Taiwan to be blocked from participating in the world Health Assembly.
“I think the secretariat of the World Health Organization was not moved,” Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters after the disinvitation. “We sent our good friends, especially our American friends, to speak with him to see why he doesn’t want to send letter to us. He said it’s because of China. Very clearly, he says, it’s China. China doesn’t allow him to send letter of invitation to us.”
Before Tedros, who is not a doctor by the way, became the DG of WHO he was the foreign minister of Ethiopia and while he held that post between 2012 and 2016, China invested $13.6 billion in that African country.
The Chinese also actively backed Tedros when he applied for the DG position.
China, of course, is keenly aware of what is at stake. It has been working for decades to extend its influence around the globe, to built political and economic partnerships to challenge America’s preeminent position.
That China’s influence now extends to the WHO comes as no great surprise. The international agency relies heavily on voluntary contributions of its members. China spends millions. Money has always bought influence.
When you have been diagnosed with cancer, the last thing you want to hear from your health provider is that a life saving operation has been canceled because of the Wuhan virus pandemic.
That is the situation my sister-in-law Eloise Wanjoe finds herself in.
Eloise was diagnosed with bile duct cancer in February and had been given a surgery date of March 31. The five-week waiting period was to allow her liver to heal.
Five weeks is a long time to wait when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. But she and her husband Robert “hunkered down” in her words to get and stay healthy in preparation for the surgery.
Last week, though, she was informed that the surgery was being canceled and was not given an alternate date.
Now, a lot of cancer patients are in a similar position. It’s a frightening prospect.
Alberta Health Services said in a statement that cancer surgeries are continuing but there are issues with scheduling.
“We have experienced some issues with scheduling — as you can imagine, everything is extremely fluid right now. However, any patient — including any cancer patient — who needs urgent, emergency surgery will receive it,” the statement reads.
AHS says patients are being triaged for urgency.
It also goes on to say that this is challenging time for everyone and that it is doing all that it can to ensure urgent health care concerns are addressed.
Those are nice words, but they are just words.
As it stands now, Alberta just under 600 cases of COVID-19. There are 23 individuals being treated in hospital, with 10 of those in intensive care.
I find it hard to understand, then, why cancer surgeries are being canceled left, right and centre. Twenty-three cases in hospital should not be taxing our health care resources. I could understand the delays if there were 230 or 2,300, but 23 hospitalizations should not force cancellations.
Clearly, this is something Health Minister Tyler Shandro needs to be addressing. We cannot allow COVID-19 to endanger more lives.
News that Abbott Laboratories has developed a five minute test for the Wuhan virus is a true game changer.
The medical device manufacturer made the announcement earlier this week, saying that it plans to supply 50,000 tests a day beginning April 1.
According to John Frels, vice president of research and development at Abbott Diagnostics, the molecular test looks for fragments of the corona virus genome.
Existing tests for the presence of the virus can take hours and even days to process.
So far the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized the new device for laboratories and patient care settings.
This will be a boon to hospitals who have struggled to perform tests in the wake of the Wuhan virus pandemic. Most were restricting testing to high-risk individuals because of a shortage of tests and the time required to process the samples.
“This is really going to provide a tremendous opportunity for front-line caregivers, those having to diagnose a lot of infections, to close the gap with our testing,” Frels said. “A clinic will be able to turn that result around quickly, while the patient is waiting.”
A fast test, however, is of greater importance to the community at large in all countries dealing with the pandemic.
After all, at some point we all need to get people working again. We have already lost trillions of dollars in production and ill-afford to lose more in the coming months.
A fast test would allow governments to find out just how many people have contracted the infection and how many people have not been exposed. It would enable health authorities to test people who work with vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with underlying illnesses.
That is the key to getting people back to work. It would allow authorities to accurately assess risk.
The current approach basically assumes everyone is infectious and, as a consequence, needs to be isolated.
We cannot continue with lock downs indefinitely. That’s just not doable. Millions upon millions of people are unemployed struggling to make ends meet. The risk of a depression, let alone a recession is very real.
At some point, we all need to move forward and this test is the key to unlocking the door.
Widespread testing, of course, will require mass production and considerably more production than 50,000 per day.
But Abbott is not the only company working on fast test. Bosch has a test that can detect the virus in under two and half hours. There is also a U.K. company as well as a Canadian company that are working on fast tests.
In the next couple of weeks, we may have the tools necessary to get our economies back on track.