Imported shale gas from the United States will fuel Canada’s biggest oil refinery under a plan awaiting approval by the National Energy Board (NEB).

Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline (M&NP) seeks to carry 65 MMcf/d from its border crossing between Maine and New Brunswick to Irving Oil’s 313,000 b/d plant in Saint John.

The proposal is a “load retention service” featuring a toll discount, to clinch a 13-year contract with Irving Oil. The bargain counters a potential rival import link that local distributor Emera Brunswick Pipeline Co. offered to build for the refinery, M&NP has told the NEB.

While an approval procedure for M&NP’s application has yet to be established, board monitoring of Canada’s eastern seaboard natural gas scene shows that the proposed deal is part of a trend toward low-cost imports from the United States.

Expensive production offshore of Nova Scotia, developed in the 1990s and early 2000s, has depleted and not been replaced by new drilling since the onset of the Marcellus-Utica shale gale made the eastern U.S. a bigger producer than all of Canada.

While originally intended as primarily an export conduit when service started in 1999, MNP was installed with capability to reverse the direction of gas deliveries. “Flow has changed, with declining gas flows to Canadian markets from offshore fields being supplemented by gas flowing south-to-north from the border,” said the M&NP application.

An NEB “market snapshot” summary said, “Natural gas production from the Sable Island and Deep Panuke offshore platforms remained below historical levels in 2016, averaging 185 MMcf/d. By comparison, offshore production averaged 210 MMcf/d in 2015 and 350 MMcf/d in 2014.

“Net exports on M&NP reached an all-time low in 2016 and on an annual basis averaged almost zero. This compares to average net exports of 20 MMcf/d in 2015 and 160 MMcf/d in 2014.”

Production by the Sable Offshore Energy Project has dwindled by nearly 80% from a 2001 peak of about 600 MMcf/d to a 120 MMcf/d range in the 2016-2017 heating season, according to records kept by the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board. The Deep Panuke platform has only operated as a peaking service during eastern cold snaps since 2015.

In the Irving Oil case, imported U.S. shale gas will support a lively trade in refined products. More than half of the mammoth Saint John plant’s output is exported, chiefly to the northeastern United States. The refinery’s crude oil supplies arrive via tankers and railways from a variety of overseas, U.S. and Canadian supply sources.