The British company behind one of Canada's largest energy asset acquisitions this year may not be done scooping up properties .
Centrica PLC sees opportunity in the current market for assets, where there are scads of sellers and few buyers, said Wes Morningstar, Centrica Energy's Calgary-based senior vice-president, exploration and production.
In fact, in the natural gas business, where prices have been in a trough for some time, there are much better returns through buying than drilling, Mr. Morningstar said in an interview.
Last month, Centrica and its partner, Qatar Petroleum, closed a $1-billion purchase of Alberta gas properties from Suncor Energy Inc. The deal was announced in April, and the acquisition and divestiture market dropped off afterward. Activity has picked up in recent weeks, however.
"The environment on the drilling and completion side – we see it as still being quite expensive, and that's one of the reasons that we're continuing to compare and contrast: Should we be out there drilling or should we be acquiring additional assets?" Mr. Morningstar said.
"If I can buy a molecule for $1 per [thousand cubic feet] like we did on the Suncor deal, does it make sense to be drilling it for $1.50 or $2? In this buyers' market, we're going to continue to look – not for the huge transformational deals like this one has been, but for value-add deals based on quality assets and good pricing."
The focus over the next few months will be consolidating the new assets, he added.
The Suncor deal gave the partners one million acres of land in central and southern Alberta, and has boosted Centrica's Canadian production to an average of 65,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day. Worldwide, Centrica produces about 220,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day, with operations also in the North Sea, Irish Sea and Trinidad. The company is best known in Canada and the United States for its Direct Energy unit, a major retailer of natural gas and electricity.
Despite the drill-versus-buy calculations, Centrica and Qatar Petroleum still have to spend on their existing properties, including the ones they acquired from Suncor. The partners could double their capital spending next year to $200-million, though that would still be below expected cash flow of $340-million, Mr. Morningstar said.
"There are things we have that have very good rates of return in our portfolio, and we're going to continue to invest in those opportunities," he said. "But right now, we're 90 per cent gas. We will try to drive that south next year because what we're trying to invest in is liquids-rich gas and oil prospects."
Centrica and state-owned Qatar Petroleum waited for five months for their deal to close, though Mr. Morningstar said he did not believe it was held up under recently tightened Investment Canada rules regarding acquisitions by foreign government-controlled enterprises.
"We didn't get the deal done as quickly as we had hoped in terms of getting the approval, but we chalk that up more to summer time and cabinet shuffle. The Industry Canada portfolio is a big portfolio, obviously. One piece of that is oil and gas, and another piece is the cell phone bit," he said. "I think we just got caught up in some of that this summer."
Some investment bankers and analysts have blamed the drop-off in deal activity on Ottawa's new rules, brought in by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year with the approvals of the takeovers of Progress Energy by Malaysia's Petronas and Nexen Inc. by CNOOC Ltd. of China.
More stringent reviews do not concern the British government, said Tony Kay, British Consul-General in Calgary.
"We've had no feedback from British companies one way or the other," Mr. Kay said. "I think the CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union) deal that was reached demonstrates that at Canada's federal level they are willing to maintain those open markets."