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In the tale of two uncertain Western Canadian energy commodities, major player Suncor Energy Inc. has placed its bet firmly against natural gas and in favour of oil sands crude. Whether shareholders care to play along with the risks involved depends on what Suncor chooses to do with the money it is banking along the way.
On Monday, Suncor announced a deal to sell the last of its conventional Western Canadian natural gas assets to Britain's Centrica PLC and Qatar Petroleum for $1-billion. In doing so, the company divested about 7 per cent of its total oil and gas production, in a commodity that is finally on the upswing after several years of persistently weak prices. Suncor is also giving up a natural hedge for its core oil sands production, which requires considerable volumes of natural gas to fuel the process.
To be fair, this move is hardly a shocker. Suncor has been selling off conventional oil and gas assets in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin ever since its merger with Petro-Canada in 2009. It had also been signalling for some time its dissatisfaction with the profitability of the natural gas assets, and had made it clear it wanted to unload them as soon as market conditions improved enough that it could get a decent price. The company has apparently concluded that relatively cheap natural gas is here to stay – and that it's better off, then, being a gas buyer than a seller.
For the conservative investor, Suncor's recent moves must feel like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, its natural gas divestment and its recent decision to pull the plug on the massive Voyageur bitumen upgrader project will conserve billions, in keeping with Suncor's pledge to maintain a cautious and responsible approach to spending. On the other hand, it has shed a couple of its safety nets in the process; much like the natural gas divestment is a bet that gas prices won't surge to erode profits from oil-sands bitumen, the Voyageur decision places a bet that it will be more profitable to sell bitumen to other refiners than for Suncor to upgrade and refine it itself.
So far, the market has seemed more concerned about the risks and uncertainty in Suncor's future than it has been impressed by its cash conservation. The stock is trading at bargain valuations, both relative to its peers and its own historical levels. Clearly, investors need some convincing.
Some of that extra cash might just do the trick. Suncor is now even better positioned to toss some money in the direction of its investors, through increased dividends and/or share buybacks this year. Analysts had already anticipated a dividend increase of 15 per cent (to 15 cents quarterly from 13 cents) when the company releases its first-quarter results at the end of this month; an even bigger increase, and/or an expanded buyback program, is now a possibility. If you're going to ask investors to go along with your bets, it never hurts to pay them first.
David Parkinson is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights , and follow David on Twitter at @ParkinsonGlobe .