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The Irving Oil Ltd. refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Aaron McKenzie Fraser/Bloomberg

Irving Oil Ltd., the owner of Canada's largest refinery, is studying investments that could be spurred by pipeline shipments of crude to the nation's Atlantic Coast.

The Energy East pipeline proposed by TransCanada Corp. to transport western Canadian oil to Saint John, New Brunswick, may create a suite of opportunities being considered by the closely held company, Irving Oil President Ian Whitcomb said in an interview at the CAPP Scotiabank Investment Symposium in Toronto. The company is looking at which industry partners could help fund projects. It's too early to identify the best option, he said.

"Before we just put all that crude oil on ships and let it sail away, we should look actually at what we could still do with it in Canada," Whitcomb said. "Most of the industry today is taking a wait-and-see attitude."

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The primary idea floated previously by industry observers including Frank McKenna, the Toronto-Dominion Bank deputy chairman and former New Brunswick premier, is building an upgrader in Saint John near Irving Oil's existing refinery. The unit would process heavy oil-sands bitumen into light, synthetic crude, given the higher demand lighter grades from refinery customers across the Atlantic.

Irving Oil, controlled by Canadian billionaire Arthur Irving, would operate and own half of a marine export terminal already planned for the port city as part of the Energy East pipeline project. Energy East, estimated by TransCanada to cost C$15.7 billion ($12 billion), would transport as much as 1.1 million barrels a day. The pipeline's forecast cost has risen with changes to the design amid opposition and delays in the regulatory review.

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