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Sign board with price of regular gas at an Esso gas station on Parliament St. in Toronto. With the weekend approaching, people top up their vehicles at an Esso gas station on Parliament St. in Toronto on April 17 2014.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Imperial Oil Ltd. has reached a deal to sell 497 Esso-brand retail gas stations to five fuel distributors for $2.8-billion, as the company seeks to focus on its expanding oil sands and refining businesses.

Quebec-based Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. will purchase 279 retail stations from Imperial in Ontario and Quebec for roughly $1.7-billion, the company said late on Tuesday. 7-Eleven Canada Inc. will pick up sites in Alberta and British Columbia. The other distributors involved in the deal include Parkland Fuel Corp., Harnois Groupe pétrolier and Wilson Fuel Co. Ltd.

Energy companies have sought to jettison assets to help weather the sharp plunge in oil prices to less than $40 (U.S.) a barrel, although deals have been scant amid disagreements between buyers and sellers over valuations.

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Imperial, which is majority owned by oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp., has been mulling the sale of the service stations since January, 2015.

It did not specify how it would spend the proceeds, but the move comes after the startup, last year, of an $8.9-billion (Canadian) expansion phase at its massive Kearl oil sands mine in northern Alberta. The company also recently started pumping crude at its $2-billion (U.S.) Nabiye development near Cold Lake, Alta.

Under the deal announced Tuesday, the stations would be owned and operated by the distributors, while Imperial would continue to supply fuel.

About two-thirds of the 1,700 Esso retail stations currently in Canada operate under a similar model.

"We believe these agreements represent the best way for Imperial to grow in the highly competitive fuels marketing business," Rich Kruger, Imperial's chairman, president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

"The Esso brand has a leading presence in Canada through our distributor network and strong prospects for continued growth to the benefit of our customers and shareholders."

Imperial said the sales are expected to close by the end of the year, subject to regulatory approvals. Like others in the oil patch, the company has stepped up efforts to preserve cash as crude prices tumble.

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Last month, it pared its 2016 budget to $1.8-billion (Canadian), down sharply from the roughly $3.6-billion outlay in 2015. Its fourth-quarter earnings dropped 85 per cent to $102-million from same period a year earlier.

Couche-Tard CEO Brian Hannasch said the deal completes a search for a "transformative" acquisition in Canada that began following its 1999 purchase of Silcorp Ltd.

"The sites we would acquire represent an excellent strategic fit for our business, allowing us to expand our network and reach more fuel customers than ever before," he said in a separate statement.

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