Suncor Energy Inc. says it will pump billions into Alberta's oil sands next year even as lower crude prices chip away at the company's profits.
Suncor plans to spend between $7-billion and $8-billion next year, up from a projected $6.8-billion this year, chief executive officer Steve Williams said Thursday, as construction on the company's Fort Hills mine ramps up. The $13.5-billion joint venture with Teck Resources Ltd. and Total SA is slated to add 180,000 barrels per day of new capacity in northern Alberta, with first oil slated for 2017.
The spending plans are the strongest signal yet that oil sands companies are prepared to wait out the current market rout, betting that the sharp plunge in benchmark crude prices is a temporary blip.
U.S. and world oil prices have skidded to four-year lows amid a supply glut and weaker economic growth in key markets.
Analysts have said integrated companies with deep pockets such as Suncor – Canada's largest oil and gas company – are better equipped to withstand lower prices, in part because of the impact of a weaker Canadian dollar and stronger prices for oil sands crude.
U.S. benchmark West Texas intermediate oil has dropped more than 20 per cent since June, and Goldman Sachs has forecast it could sink further to $75 (U.S.) later next year.
"If it went to levels in the $40s and $50s, of course we'd have to reflect, but right now nothing we see will cause us to change course on that capital budget," Mr. Williams said Thursday.
Suncor profits for the third quarter tumbled 46 per cent on lower production and weaker commodity prices, the Calgary-based company said late Wednesday. Earnings fell to $919-million or 63 cents a share, from $1.69-billion or $1.13 a year earlier. Suncor said cash flow fell to $2.28-billion from $2.53-billion.
Suncor's company-wide production was 519,300 barrels of oil equivalent per day, down from 595,000 boe/d in the year-ago period.
The decline reflected the sale of conventional natural gas business last year, planned maintenance at some operations and lower production in Libya. Oil sands production increased as the company ramped up output at its Firebag in situ operations, it said. The company said oil sands costs per barrel rang in at $31.10 versus $32.60 a year ago.
Suncor plans to finalize its 2015 budget later this year, Mr. Williams said. In the past year, the Calgary-based company chopped $1-billion from its capital spending, rewarding investors with a 22-per-cent hike to its quarterly payout and an aggressive share buyback plan. It also halted exploratory drilling on shale gas lands in British Columbia and scrapped the $11-billion Joslyn mine with partner Total.
Mr. Williams said those moves have put the company in a good position to weather the swoon in oil prices. He said the company would stick to plans to repurchase as much as $500-million in shares in the fourth-quarter, after buying back $522-million in the three months ended Sept. 30.
While the company is moving ahead with Fort Hills, it is also investing in small projects to wring more crude from existing oil sands assets at a lower cost.
In the quarter, Suncor also shipped its first batch of heavy Alberta crude from a tanker port on the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.
Mr. Williams said the company would look to move additional cargoes from the port on an opportunistic basis, targeting markets on North America's East Coast, the U.S. Gulf Coast, and as far as Europe depending on economics.
The company is also nearing completion of a $200-million revamp to its 137,000-barrel Montreal refinery to facilitate processing of a variety of cheaper light and heavy crude types from across North America.