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Teck’s Highland Valley copper operation in British Columbia.James Brylowski

Teck Resources Ltd. is delaying the planned startup of a multibillion-dollar oil sands mine by at least five years, becoming the latest company to push back development as shaky energy markets threaten profits in the high-cost sector.

Vancouver-based Teck told regulators that production from its proposed Frontier oil sands mine about 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta., won't start until 2026, instead of 2021 as originally planned. The company now says it will build the 260,000-barrel-a-day mine in two phases instead of four, with construction starting in 2019, according to an update filed with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

The moves are fresh evidence of a broader pullback under way in northern Alberta, as oil prices show no sign of recovering to triple-digit territory – a threshold analysts say is needed to justify new mining developments such as Frontier.

Teck, which has not committed to building the mega-mine, has pegged the cost of Frontier at roughly $20.6-billion, making it one of the most expensive oil sands projects contemplated to date. Such developments are increasingly giving way to smaller, steam-driven projects, as the industry adapts to crude prices that remain at about half levels of recent years.

"The prospect of mining projects going ahead in this environment, or even an improvement from this environment, is pretty unlikely, if at all," said Chris Cox, analyst at Raymond James Ltd. in Calgary.

"I put it as very unlikely that it actually gets approved, unless we see triple-digit oil prices again."

U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate oil edged up 2.2 per cent to $52.78 (U.S.) a barrel on Thursday, despite lingering concerns over the Greek economic crisis and a possible slowdown in Chinese demand.

Earlier this week, those fears pushed U.S. prices to a three-month low of $50.58 a barrel, snuffing out expectations of a wider rebound in energy markets.

Teck's move adds to a long list of companies that have slammed the brakes on big-ticket projects since the commodity slump intensified, triggering waves of layoffs and budget cuts.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and their competitors have put off investments in several expansions, collectively shaving more than one million barrels a day from the energy industry's long-term production outlook. Oil sands investment is expected to fall by a third from levels a year ago, to $23-billion (Canadian), according to industry data.

The abrupt downturn has hit oil-rich Alberta hard, eclipsing expectations set as recently as April.

On Thursday, economists at Toronto-Dominion Bank said the hit to capital spending in the energy sector so far has been "more swift and pronounced" than initially expected. The bank now expects the provincial economy to contract this year by 0.9 per cent in real terms, compared with an April forecast of 0.5 per cent growth.

Despite headwinds, production from the oil sands is expected to climb by 800,000 barrels a day by 2020 as projects under construction come on stream, according to consultancy IHS Cera.

Those include Fort Hills, a $13.5-billion oil sands mine under construction about 90 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta. The project, led by Suncor Energy Inc., is due to add 180,000 barrels a day of new capacity in northern Alberta starting in late 2017.

Teck, which holds a 20-per-cent stake in the venture, has committed about $3-billion to the development, even as the diversified miner faces pressure from sinking prices for coal and copper.

In April, Teck slashed its semi-annual dividend by two-thirds to 15 cents a share. A month later, it announced the temporary shutdowns of six metallurgical coal mines in Western Canada to cope with weak prices and glut of supply in the market.

Teck initially applied to build Frontier in 2011. A spokesman for the company said the decision to push back startup was made to accommodate updates to the project. The new timeline is contingent on regulatory approval, economic conditions and a green light from Teck's board, Chris Stannell said in an e-mail.

Follow Jeff Lewis on Twitter: @jeffalewisOpens in a new window

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