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Canadian oil assets put on the block even as crude tops $60

Crescent Point Energy, whose oil assets have include operations on Saskatchewan’s Bakken formation, is beginning a process to sell its Viking and Swan Hills assets in Saskatachewan and Alberta.

STAFF/Reuters

Oil producers are stepping up asset sales to patch up their finances, underscoring caution in the sector even as crude prices climb to more than $60 (U.S.).

Crescent Point Energy Corp. earlier this month raised its 2018 budget by $200-million (Canadian). But it has also put properties in Saskatchewan and Alberta on the block, a rare move for a company known more as an aggressive consolidator.

Heavy oil producer Cona Resources Ltd. is selling assets in west-central Saskatchewan to cut debt. And Encana Corp. is said to be mulling a possible exit from the Duvernay shale region in western Alberta, one of four major holdings the company has called central to its operations.

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The moves indicate producers are keen to shed unprofitable assets while limiting spending to prospects that offer the highest returns amid worries that crude markets are overheated.

While production cuts and strong demand have lifted oil prices 50 per cent from mid-2017 levels, crude has also been spurred by speculative bets, stoking concerns of a sharp pullback as higher prices prompt a rebound in U.S. shale output.

Canada's energy industry has also been pinched by infrastructure constraints that have contributed to steep discounts on prices for natural gas and heavy oil, making lavish growth plans a hard sell with cost-conscious investors.

"I think that they've been through a rough time, and investors are calling them on the carpet," said Laura Lau, senior portfolio manager at Brompton Funds in Toronto.

"I would say that they are trying to get them to have some discipline, to not invest tons of money all the time whenever prices ramp up."

Crescent Point has started a process to sell its Viking and Swan Hills assets, analysts at investment bank Peters & Co. Ltd. said in a research note. The properties produce between 14,000 to 16,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day (boe/d). CEO Scott Saxberg did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Cona Resources hired Bank of Nova Scotia to market Saskatchewan thermal oil assets with production equivalent to 5,800 barrels of oil a day. Proceeds are aimed at reducing debt, which stood at about $328-million at the end of 2017, including a credit facility and term loan.

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A sale by Encana of its Duvernay lands is no sure bet, although the company has floated the idea with analysts and investors. It would extend efforts by chief executive officer Doug Suttles to streamline operations already heavily skewed toward holdings in Texas and in British Columbia.

Encana struck a joint venture in the Duvernay with a unit of PetroChina Co. Ltd. in 2012 that saw the Chinese state-run firm pick up a 49.9-per-cent interest in 445,000 acres in a region said to rival some of the biggest U.S. shale zones.

Under the deal, PetroChina agreed to pay $1.18-billion up front, plus carry another $1-billion in development costs over four years. That period has expired, however, meaning Encana would have to shoulder a greater share of any future drilling expenses.

Royal Bank of Canada analyst Greg Pardy told clients in a note the company's enthusiasm is further tempered by the need to expand processing facilities and pipelines to move supplies to market. Encana's third-quarter production in the region was 20,600 boe/d, he said.

"The Duvernay now constitutes an option for Encana, and it would not surprise us to see the company part ways with the play altogether," Mr. Pardy wrote this week.

Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC both have sizeable Duvernay holdings, making them possible acquirers, although Mr. Pardy noted the joint venture with PetroChina could dim potential proceeds.

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In an e-mail, Encana spokesman Jay Averill did not address the potential for a sale directly. The company expects to formalize its 2018 capital plan next month, with spending forecast to stay flat around $1.8-billion.

He said about 70 per cent of the total will be devoted to its assets in the Permian shale in Texas and the Montney exploration region in B.C., where it has a backlog of prospects it says generate premium returns.

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