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The company has been keen to switch its Montreal plant off more expensive imported crude to process cheaper North American feedstock.

Suncor Energy Inc. is actively pursuing plans to add a coker unit to its Montreal refinery, which would allow it to process oil sands bitumen, and will make a decision next year, chief executive officer Steve Williams said Wednesday.

The Calgary-based company has been keen to switch its 137,000-barrel-a-day Montreal plant off a diet of more expensive imported crude to process cheaper North American feedstock and a coker would expand its ability to refine diluted bitumen without requiring the ultraheavy oil sands production to be upgraded first in Alberta.

"Development is still happening of that project, and I would expect that probably in the first half of next year, the business will be presenting that project to us" for approval, Mr. Williams told a conference call Thursday. The project was once estimated to cost $1-billion, but it's unclear what that price tag would now be.

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Suncor killed plans in 2013 to build the $11.6-billion Voyageur upgrader that would have produced light, synthetic crude (syncrude) in Alberta. Mr. Williams said the move was driven by the company's view that North America will be awash in light crude – against which syncrude competes – but relatively short of heavy grades for which there is ample refining capacity.

Oil sands producers are keen to expand their markets for the diluted bitumen but have been stymied by opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast and Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway project to B.C.'s west coast.

The company built a rail terminal at its Montreal plant capable of handling up to 40,000 barrels a day of western crude, and Mr. Williams said it has been fully utilized. Suncor is also a major customer for Enbridge's Line 9 project, which reversed the flow of an import pipeline to bring western crude to Montreal. After receiving conditional approval 18 months ago, Enbridge has faced a number of delays as the National Energy Board ordered more work to satisfy its conditions.

"We've been disappointed by the NEB process," Mr. Williams said. "Of course, we completely support the need for stringent safety and environmental controls, but the length of this process, in our judgment, has been too long."

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