Imperial Oil Ltd. and Exxon Mobil Corp. have teamed up to buy a major Alberta oil sands property from ConocoPhillips for $751-million, ending a drought of large deals for bitumen-rich lands that had persisted since the start of the year.
ConocoPhillips has had a package of oil patch assets on the auction block since early 2012. In that time, however, the deal flow in the industry slowed to a trickle.
The U.S. energy giant now says that in addition to selling the oil sands assets to Imperial and Exxon Mobil, it has attracted interest and bids for some of the other five properties it is looking to sell.
"Who knows if the interest translates into eventual sales, but there's certainly interest out there and some offers," said Rob Evans, spokesman for the Houston-based company's Canadian unit.
A series of deals would represent a turnaround for the industry. Normally rife with big-money transactions, the oil sands had failed to attract buyers this year as fears grew about the high costs of development, competition with cheaper sources of crude and global market uncertainty. Meanwhile, interest among foreign state-owned enterprises dropped off after Ottawa effectively banned them from making acquisitions of controlling interests in the oil sands, one of the world's biggest crude reserves.
In Thursday's deal, Imperial will take 27.5 per cent of an undeveloped lease called Clyden, and Exxon Mobil, its U.S. parent, will take up the remainder. The companies said the higher stake for Exxon Mobil will allow it to bring in another partner. The acquisition is contingent on approval from Canada's Competition Bureau.
Imperial has not sketched out plans yet for Clyden, which is 150 kilometres south of the oil sands hub of Fort McMurray, Alta. Its next large new development is a steam-assisted bitumen extraction project called Aspen, which would start up around 2019.
The 226,000-acre Clyden lease is close to the company's Corner oil sands property, which would also be developed using steam-injection techniques because of the depth of the bitumen reserve below the surface. It is known as in-situ development.
"At this point, we haven't made specific decisions on potential timing of a development, or even what that development might look like," Imperial spokesman Pius Rolheiser said. "However, we do see that Clyden leasehold as a very strategic addition to our in-situ portfolio."
Imperial and its deep-pocketed parent, Exxon Mobil, have a history of building up their business in weak markets, having started construction on the $12.9-billion Kearl oil sands project in 2009 when competitors were hampered by the financial crisis. Production at Kearl started in April.
Imperial, under chief executive officer Rich Kruger, has set its sights on doubling overall production to 600,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day by 2020 and increasing that to one million a day by 2030.
In May, the president of ConocoPhillips Canada, Ken Lueers, told The Globe and Mail that the company had paused its program to sell Clyden and five other Alberta oil sands properties. It put the properties, which included a stake in the producing Surmont project, on the auction block in early 2012 as part of an effort to free up capital.
Its decision to put the effort on hold followed moves by several other developers, including Koch Industries, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Marathon Oil Corp., to scrub asset sales when the properties failed to attract the rich bids they had hoped for.
Now, ConocoPhillips is poring over the recent interest in its other stakes, Mr. Evans said.
"During that process, we had interest from actually all over the globe, and now there's various offers out there on the table and we're just taking our time to go through them and see what happens next," he said.
There has been a modicum of activity in recent weeks, albeit not anywhere near the size of Thursday's transaction. In June, Teck Resources Ltd. and Shell exchanged some oil sands assets to help clear up a boundary dispute involving Teck's proposed Frontier project and Shell's Pierre River venture.
Emerging developer Deep Well Oil & Gas Inc. signed an agreement with a a unit of France's Maurel et Prom to finance its share of a demonstration project at the company's Sawn Lake prospect in Alberta's Peace River oil sands region.
However, it does not look like conditions have improved enough to expect a flood of large deals, especially as the oil sands industry struggles to compete on price with development opportunities in U.S. shale oil regions such as the North Dakota Bakken, said Samir Kayande, analyst at ITG Investment Research.
"It doesn't make sense to have no deals, so you'd expect some even in a fairly dry market," Mr. Kayande said. "But the news we're getting out of the United States around light, tight oil is just getting better."
ConocoPhillips said it will record a gain of $450-million (U.S.) from the sale, which is expected to close in this quarter.