The Canadian crude oil hubs of Hardisty and Edmonton in Alberta are embarking on a major round of storage expansion that should boost capacity by about 25 percent and provide more scope for trading oil sands crude production.
According to company data and estimates from energy intelligence firm Genscape, the projects should add around 9 million barrels of capacity over the next two years.
In addition, TransCanada Corp will add an as-yet undisclosed volume of storage capacity in Hardisty once it greenlights a major eastern pipeline project.
Alberta's oil sands crude production is expected to nearly double to 3.22 million barrels per day by 2020, from 1.8 million bpd in 2012.
The lion's share of the new storage capacity - 6.6 million barrels - will be built in Edmonton, where there are salt caverns as well as above-ground storage tanks. Current capacity is estimated to be around 11 million barrels, although Enbridge Inc - the largest storage owner, according to industry intelligence group Genscape - declined to give figures.
Traditionally the smaller of the two hubs, Edmonton is attracting investment thanks to its proximity to refineries such as Imperial Oil's 187,000 bpd Strathcona facility, and pipelines running west to the coast of British Columbia, as well as south to the United States.
Edmonton is the starting point for Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP's 300,000 bpd Trans Mountain pipeline, which the company is proposing to expand to 890,000 bpd.
"Hardisty is essentially a junction of several export lines, whereas Edmonton has more optionality because there are refineries there," said Tony Mate, director of corporate and investor communications at Inter Pipeline Fund, which owns 75,000 barrels of storage in Hardisty.
Hardisty, a tiny town in east-central Alberta is Canada's equivalent to Cushing, the main U.S. crude storage hub in Oklahoma. Although there are no official figures available, industry players estimate there is storage capacity for 20 to 25 million barrels of oil in the tank farms there.
It is a junction point on the Enbridge mainline and crude volumes can also flow south on TransCanada Corp's 590,000 bpd Keystone pipeline and Spectra Energy's 280,000 bpd Express-Platte pipeline system.
TransCanada is planning to add to its 4.5 million barrels of crude oil storage in Hardisty if open season on the Energy East pipeline project goes well, company spokesman Davis Sheremata said, although he declined to comment on how much.
The Energy East project is a plan to build a pipeline to ship up to 850,000 bpd of Western Canadian crude to eastern refineries, with a targeted end-2017 opening.
Most of the larger tank owners lease storage capacity to other companies and industry players said the majority was used by Canadian producers for operational purposes, rather than by speculators trying to cash in on fluctuating crude prices.
Still, storage provides some security against volatility in Canadian heavy crude, which sank to $40 per barrel below the West Texas Intermediate benchmark in early 2013.
"It's a nice buffer between supply and demand when there are conditions such as we have seen over the last year or two, where supply is growing rapidly and demand is not," said Martin King, analyst at FirstEnergy Capital in Calgary.
"For storage operators it has been a good gig."