CALGARY -- The CEO of TransCanada Corp. confirmed Friday that the company is in the early stages of weighing a plan to ship Western Canadian crude to eastern refineries that currently rely on expensive imports from overseas.
"We have a lot of work to do technically. We have a lot of work to do in conversations with our shippers. But at the 30,000-foot level, it seems to make sense to people,'' Russ Girling told reporters following the pipeline and utility company's annual general meeting.
"So we're going to actively pursue it and see if we can turn it into an opportunity for both the oil and gas industry and for TransCanada.''
Eastern Canadian refiners have asked TransCanada whether it's feasible to send Western Canadian crude their way so that they don't have to buy a raw product based on higher international prices.
Girling said it was premature to discuss the specifics of what such a plan would entail, but that one option could be to convert part of its natural gas-carrying Mainline to oil service.
There are "integrity issues'' that come from switching a natural gas pipe to an oil pipe, but it's something TransCanada has experience doing in building its base Keystone system, which currently delivers Alberta crude to refineries in Illinois and a big storage hub in Cushing, Okla.
"I think it's likely technically feasible that we can make something like that work,'' he said.
TransCanada rival Enbridge Inc. is looking to reverse the flow of part of its Line 9 oil pipeline in Ontario, which could lead to more western crude flowing east.
There are also potential benefits for Canadian oil producers who are eager to get their crude to open water. Currently, much of that crude is landlocked, leading to a steep price discount between West Texas Intermediate, the North American benchmark, and international varieties like Brent produced in the North Sea.
That's the driver behind West Coast pipeline proposals like Enbridge's controversial Northern Gateway project to Kitimat, B.C., and Kinder Morgan's expanded Trans Mountain pipeline to the B.C. Lower Mainland.
TransCanada has been in the news recently amid controversy over a US$7.6-billion proposal to expand its Keystone system and extend it to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Critics of Keystone XL say the project would increase U.S. dependence on "dirty'' oilsands crude and cause harm to the American heartland in the event of a spill.
Supporters say the project will offer a big boost to the U.S. economy and reduce the amount of crude the United States has to import from unfriendly countries.
In January, the U.S. government denied a permit for the project, but left the door open for TransCanada to apply for a new one.
TransCanada has since broken the project into two parts.
It aims to build the most urgently needed leg -- from an oversupplied storage hub in Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf -- at a cost of $2.3 billion. It's targeted to come into service in mid- to late-2013.
Meanwhile, TransCanada intends to refile a new application for the northern portion of the line that runs form the Canada-U.S. border to Steele City, Neb. That milestone is "imminent,'' Girling said Friday.
TransCanada recently came up with a new route through Nebraska to skirt the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region, which the state government is now reviewing. That state process would take place parallel to the upcoming federal review, Girling said.
Earlier Friday, TransCanada Corp. cited a mild winter and low natural gas prices among reasons its first-quarter net earnings dropped and missed analyst expectations.
The Calgary-based pipeline and power company said Friday its comparable earnings, which it deems the best measure of financial performance, were $363 million, or 52 cents per share in the first three months of 2012, That compared with $423 million or 61 cents in the same quarter a year earlier.
Revenue was $1.91 billion, up from $1.86 billion.
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were on average expecting earnings of 54 cents per share and revenues of about $2.2 billion.
However, Girling said the return to service of two refurbished nuclear reactors at Bruce Power and the contribution from other new assets position TransCanada well for the future.
Net income attributable to common shareholders in the three months ended March 31 was $352 million, or 50 cents per share, compared to $411 million, or 59 cents, in the same 2011 period.
UBS Investment Research analyst Chad Friess said anything natural gas-related weighed heavily on TransCanada's first-quarter results. Natural gas has recently hit 10-year lows below US$2 per 1,000 cubic as new supplies from prolific shale formations outpace demand.
"In spite of the poor results we note that the majority of the drivers appear to be transitory in nature as we expect better performance going forward,'' he wrote in a note to clients.
TransCanada shares closed up six cents at $43.19 Friday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.