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Facilities at Canadian Natural Resources Limited's (CNRL) 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 oil producer, reported its first quarterly loss in more than four years as higher output failed to offset a collapse in crude prices.

The first-quarter net loss was $252-million or 23 cents a share, compared with profit of $622-million, or 57 cents, a year earlier, the Calgary-based producer said in a statement Thursday on Marketwired. Excluding one-time items, per-share results beat the forecast loss of 9 cents, the average of 15 analysts' estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

The company last reported a net loss in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Canadian Natural is boosting output from oil-sands expansions and natural gas acquisitions even as it curbs spending to withstand crude's collapse to a six-year price low in March. The company is planning to sell or spin off its so– called royalty lands, which generate about C$186-million in annual income from drilling payments by other producers.

Canadian Natural "has evolved into a super independent with an international scope because of its ability to successfully navigate through successive stages of growth under all kinds of conditions," Greg Pardy, an analyst at RBC Dominion Securities Inc. in Toronto, wrote in a May 3 note.

Canadian Natural's production averaged the equivalent of 898,053 barrels of oil a day in the quarter, compared with 684,647 a year earlier. The company plans $6.04-billion in capital spending this year, 49 per cent less than last year, according to a March 5 estimate.

West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, fell 51 per cent from a year earlier to average $48.57 a barrel during the first three months of the year.

Canadian Natural released the results before the start of regular trading on North American markets. The stock, which has one sell, 25 buy and two hold and recommendations from analysts, has gained 7.1 per cent this year. The shares fell 2.9 per cent to $38.48 Wednesday in Toronto.

The company could generate $2.3-billion of proceeds, before taxes, from the sale or initial public offering of the royalty lands, which could be spent on reducing debt, according to RBC estimates. Canadian Natural President Steve Laut said in March that a deal could come this year, depending on the price of oil.

Royalty lands generate income from other companies drilling on them. Encana Corp. raised more than $4-billion selling shares in its royalty lands last year.

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