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A growing share of Canadian oil-by-rail traffic is made up of tough-to-ignite undiluted heavy crude and raw bitumen, say industry executives, as companies scramble to cut expenditures with the price of crude down more than 40 percent since June.
By eliminating the cost of diluting with ultra-light condensate, heavy oil offers rail shippers an opportunity to claw back a few dollars per barrel in transportation costs.
Official data does not break down the different Canadian crudes shipped by rail but interviews with industry executives suggest undiluted heavy and raw bitumen shipments now make up roughly a quarter of the estimated 200,000 barrel per day (bpd) oil-by-rail market.
An added bonus is that heavy crude and bitumen are far less combustible than the Bakken and Canadian synthetic crudes involved in fiery crashes that spurred the Canadian and U.S. governments on Friday to tighten safety rules for trains carrying oil.
With very high boiling and flashpoints they fall outside Packing Groups 1 and 2, used to classify the more volatile types of crude oil for transport, and are already shipped in double-hulled cars, meaning they should be unaffected by last week's tank car phase-out rules.
Oil-by-rail shipments have come under increased scrutiny and public outrage following 10 oil-train derailments involving fires in less than two years.
"The business is moving back to where it started, which is as a vehicle to move undiluted heavy oil," said John Zahary, chief executive of Altex Energy, which operates crude-by-rail terminals.
Normally, rail is more expensive than shipping by pipeline, but undiluted rail shipments offer better returns because shippers do not need to add between 15 and 30 percent condensate per barrel, which often trades at a premium to U.S. benchmark crude.
Overall rail volumes have dipped in recent months, as the shrinking gap between U.S. and cheaper Canadian crude prices has eroded arbitrage opportunities. Total crude-by-rail export volumes, not including shipments within Canada, dipped 5 percent quarter-on-quarter in the final three months of 2014 to 173,000 bpd, according to the National Energy Board.
Still, Jarrett Zielinksi, chief executive officer of TORQ Transloading, said the proportion of heavy undiluted crude shipped is growing.
TORQ's overall volumes fell to approximately 25,000 bpd this year, but it is now moving essentially 100 percent undiluted conventional heavy, up from around 85 percent last year.
Meanwhile, Altex moved around 35,000 bpd of conventional heavy last month and has just finalized plans for a 100,000 bpd unit train facility in Lashburn, Saskatchewan.
Like heavy crude, raw bitumen can be shipped on heated and coiled rail cars without diluent. But it is a much smaller segment of the market due to the infrastructure needed at both loading and unloading facilities.
Canadian National Railway is pushing hard towards shipping more of this so-called neat bitumen to improve both economics and safety.
"It's the wave of the future," James Cairns, CN vice-president of petroleum and chemicals, told a recent conference. "When we move bitumen it doesn't even move as a dangerous commodity. The safest crude you can move by rail is a heavy, neat bitumen crude."
MEG Energy Corp and Keyera Corp have looked at building diluent recovery units. This would enable them to receive diluted bitumen by pipeline at rail terminals, remove all or some of the diluent and then load the raw bitumen onto railcars.
Both companies have put those plans on hold due to low oil prices but said they could be developed in future.