The fracking boom over the past decade has turned the United States into the king of the global oil production patch. The surge is led by the big Permian shale oil basin in Texas and New Mexico. But North Dakota — the nation’s second-largest oil-producing state after Texas — has also hit new output records in recent months. Oil is a significant force in Minnesota, too. Enbridge’s corridor of six pipelines across northern Minnesota is the main conduit of Canadian crude into the United States. The Calgary company’s plan to build a new $2.6 billion pipeline to replace its current Line 3 has been controversial. Also, Minnesota is the nation’s fourth-largest ethanol maker. Corn ethanol producers and the oil industry are often at odds. Dean Foreman, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute (API), spoke this month at Riverland Community College’s annual Ag Summit in Austin, Minn. API represents all facets of the oil and gas industry. Foreman talked recently with the Star Tribune.
Q: An agriculture conference is a potentially hostile crowd given Minnesota’s corn and ethanol interests. Did they throw any shade your way?
A: Just the opposite. Agriculture is our largest customer. They need safe, reliable, affordable energy. We have multiple points where we are aligned and have very common interests.
Q: Can you give me an example?
A: The enabling infrastructure that takes advantage of the shale revolution — and it is nothing short of a revolution in terms of natural gas and oil production in this country. At the ag summit, I presented statistics that showed Minnesotans have saved $2.6 billion on energy between 2010 and 2016, largely because of lower oil prices. Propane and natural gas prices are significantly down, too. And prices for all three are less volatile. That doesn’t happen without the infrastructure to connect oil and gas producers with markets, and that’s a challenge for both producers and consumers. Also, at the ag conference, we were appealing to a broader audience. We were talking to ethanol producers, but also to agribusiness more generally.
Q: With U.S. shale oil production surging, in the long term is there going to be less demand for Canadian oil in the United States?
A: No. Heavy oil is uniquely positioned to make certain products.
Q: And heavy oil is Canada’s main product?
A: Yes. And in the U.S., you have refiners that have invested in so-called conversion capacity, building crackers or chokers that can take heavier oil molecules and break them into lighter products. Those refiners have big sunk investments. Only oil from the Orinoco Belt in Venezuela is really comparable to the truly heavy oil you are getting from Canada. It’s bitumen. It needs diluent to flow through a pipeline. It’s that heavy, almost tarlike.
Q: How much does the ascension of the U.S. as a global oil producer affect the pricing power of OPEC and Russia? They can reduce or increase production to manipulate prices, and, of course, that isn’t going to happen here.
A: API can’t predict the price, but we have a nice empirical example over the last quarter. We had West Texas Intermediate — the U.S. benchmark price — go from $70 a barrel down to $50 and back to $60. Now what happened to get it there? You had OPEC announce that it was cutting production, as U.S. production continued to grow. So, the U.S. is taking market share from OPEC along the way. OPEC still has some ability to influence the global price, but so long as the U.S. can maintain strong production and continue to grow, OPEC does that at the cost of market share.
Q: Shale oil and gas production is largely a U.S. enterprise now. Do you expect the industry to take off in other countries?
A: In Argentina, there’s the Vaca Muerta, which translates roughly to “dead cow.” That formation has really accelerated in terms of shale oil production. It really has some of the best shale rock in the world for both oil and gas. Most major oil companies are trying to take a position there, despite the macroeconomic uncertainties in Argentina. The Montney shale formation in Canada from a gas perspective is extremely prolific. There are also shale oil plays in Canada, but they are not the Permian Basin — at least not at this point. Shale is everywhere. Algeria has enough natural gas in shale to supply Europe for decades if developed properly. Uzbekistan and Russia have a tremendous amount of shale oil.
Q: The resource is there, is it going to be economic to extract it?
A: It’s economics and societal concerns — the willingness to develop the resource to meet domestic needs. If, for example, the fissures in global trade continue — let’s hope the clouds clear — but if they don’t, nations will be forced to think more about how to be self-sufficient in energy. In that scenario, you would see more countries seek to develop shale resources.