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Imperial reviews oilsands project approvals as heavy oil price discounts persist


CALGARY – Two new oilsands projects with the combined capacity to produce up to 200,000 barrels per day have been approved by the Alberta Energy Regulator but proponent Imperial Oil Ltd. isn’t saying when or if it will build them.

Company experts are scouring the “guts and feathers” of the decisions on its 50,000-bpd Cold Lake expansion and 150,000-bpd Aspen projects, both of which would use solvent and steam to recover bitumen from wells, said CEO Rich Kruger on a conference call to discuss third-quarter results on Friday.

The prospect of producing more heavy oil comes at a difficult time as discounts being paid for Western Canadian Select bitumen blend crude versus New York-traded West Texas Intermediate are hovering near US$40 per barrel, about three times typical differences.

Light oil discounts have also widened recently as Canadian oil production exceeds export pipeline capacity – although lower-priced Alberta light oil actually weighs in Imperial’s favour because its Edmonton-area refinery consumes primarily light oil, Kruger pointed out.

The Calgary-based company has grown its crude-by-rail exports from 80,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen six months ago to about 100,000 bpd now and plans to increase that to as much as 130,000 bpd by year-end, he said.

The rail-loading terminal Imperial co-owns near its Edmonton refinery has capacity to ship 210,000 bpd.

“As we get into 2019, we’re going to continue to work to ramp it up … I’d like to use every bit of that capacity because that allows us to get into the highest value markets (on the U.S. Gulf Coast),” Kruger said.

Imperial earned $749 million in the third quarter, more than double its profit of $371 million in the same period last year, thanks to strong upstream production and downstream profits.

Analysts applauded the report that Imperial’s Kearl oilsands mining projects, which has previously been dogged by reliability problems, posted record gross production of 244,000 barrels per day, about 4,000 bpd higher than its nameplate capacity.

The project is 30 per cent owned by Imperial’s U.S. parent company, Exxon Mobil Corp.

Overall upstream production was 393,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, up slightly from the third quarter of 2017, resulting in earnings of $222 million, the highest level in four years.

Imperial’s refining and sales division, meanwhile, pulled in earnings of $502 million compared with $292 million for the third quarter last year.

Downstream profits were up despite a $33-million impairment charge related to the Ontario government’s revocation of its cap and trade carbon emission regulations.

Partners in the Syncrude oilsands mining consortium are working to finalize commercial agreements for a plan to improve reliability by integrating certain operations with the nearby Suncor Energy Inc. base processing plant, Kruger said on the call.

On Thursday, Suncor CEO Steve Williams said the partners have agreed in principle on the main terms and he expects two pipelines between the two plants will be completed by late 2020.

Suncor owns about 49 per cent and Imperial owns 25 per cent of Syncrude.

Copyright (c) 2018 The Canadian Press