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Facilities at Canadian Natural Resources Primrose Lake oil sands project is seen near Cold Lake, Alta., in this file photo.

© Dan Riedlhuber / Reuters

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., the nation's largest heavy crude producer, boosted its dividend by half a cent after reporting an almost tripling of its profit as it pumped more oil to counter the effect of plunging prices.

Fourth-quarter net income rose to $1.2-billion or $1.09 a share, from $413-million, or 38 cents, a year earlier, the Calgary-based company said in a statement Thursday on Marketwired. Excluding one-time items, per-share profit exceeded the 67-cent average of 14 analysts' estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

"Production will be up considerably from a year ago, with two major acquisitions, more production from Horizon, the issues at Primrose solved and Kirby ramped up," Chris Cox, an analyst at Raymond James Ltd. in Calgary, said in a Feb. 24 phone interview. "They're viewed as generally one of the more resilient names."

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While other oil producers have cut or eliminated dividends in the wake of a falling prices, Canadian Natural increased its investor payout to 23 Canadian cents a share from 22.5 cents. Production rose to the equivalent of 860,920 barrels a day in the quarter from 677,242 a year earlier.

Canadian Natural is among producers that have scaled back spending after oil prices reached six-year lows in January. The company announced a 28 per cent cut to its 2015 budget in January, part of an estimated $86-billion in budget cuts by the industry globally, according to RBC Dominion Securities. U.S. crude prices fell 25 per cent to average $73.47 a barrel in the fourth quarter.

Canadian Natural said spending for the year would be cut by another $150-million as it pushed some planned maintenance work into 2016, reducing downtime from 35 days to 6 days at its Horizon oil-sands project. That quicker turnaround will also increase output by 10,000 barrels a day, the company said.

Members of the company's management committee agreed to a 10 per cent pay cut and the board will reduce its annual cash retainer by 10 per cent.

Canadian Natural is still considering what to do with its royalty lands business after Encana Corp. last May spun off its unit, for which other companies pay for the right to produce oil and natural gas, in Canada's largest initial public offering in 14 years.

The company released the results before the start of regular trading on North American markets. The stock, which has 19 buy, five hold and one sell recommendations from analysts, fell 0.4 per cent to $36.78 at Wednesday's close in Toronto.

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