Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Nexen, Opti Canada may be targeted in tar sands deals

Nexen, Opti Canada may be targeted in oil sands deals
By Joe Carroll, Bloomberg
April 3, 2009

Nexen Inc. and Opti Canada Inc. may be among Canadian oil companies targeted for takeovers as a price collapse triggers a rush by larger producers to amass holdings in the biggest crude deposits outside Saudi Arabia.

Potential suitors like Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Exxon Mobil Corp. can buy reserves cheaper than they can discover them after a global recession eroded energy demand and market values of smaller producers plummeted, said Sampat Prakash, who advises oil companies on acquisitions at Deloitte Consulting LLP.

For possible sellers, rising costs and the credit crunch make it difficult to fund oil-sands developments, some of which were made unviable by a US$95 drop in crude prices from 2008’s record high. Producers as small as Opti, with a market value of about $239-million (US$194-million), can offer suitors stakes in large crude deposits free from threat of nationalization.

"Opti won’t be around by the end of the year," said Will Lee, an analyst at CIBC World Markets Inc. in Calgary. "There’s a huge motivation for oil companies to get together now."

Nexen and Opti, both based in Calgary, own the $6.5-billion Long Lake tar-sands project. Nexen, valued at $12.1-billion, also has the Buzzard field in the North Sea and a piece of Syncrude Canada Ltd., the world’s biggest oil-sands producer.

Opti has lost 93% of its market value in the past year, and former Scotia Waterous banker Christopher Slubicki will take over as chief executive officer this month. Opti rose 4.3% to $1.22 at 12:11 p.m. on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and Nexen climbed 1 cent to $23.29.

Some takeovers may involve Canadian producers combining with each other, as with Suncor Energy Inc.’s agreement to buy Petro-Canada for $19.3-billion, announced March 23. The deal provides the scale and cost savings Suncor needs to shoulder the massive investments needed to compete with the likes of Shell in oil-sands development, CEO Rick George said.

The thick crude permeating Canada’s oil sands is bitumen, a low-grade petroleum that is solid as hockey puck at 52 degrees Fahrenheit (11 Celsius). Producers use mechanical shovels or steam to extract bitumen, which is processed into synthetic crude before it can be refined into gasoline or diesel.

To do all of that profitably, new oil-sands developments will need oil prices of US$80 a barrel, more than 50% above current levels, said Andy Byrne, an analyst at IHS Herold in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Canadian energy companies dropped 32% in the past year as petroleum prices tumbled, steeper than the 25% decline for the largest U.S. oil producers. The high-cost tar sands account for 97% of the nation’s oil reserves.

Opti Chief Executive Officer Sid Dykstra, who will step down on April 28, declined to discuss whether a sale of the company is in the works. Nexen Chairman Francis Saville referred an inquiry to spokeswoman Carla Yuill, who declined to comment.

Target companies probably will be more amenable to takeover offers than they would have been during the 6 1/2-year bull run for oil that ended in mid-2008, said Richard Wyman, an analyst at Canaccord Capital Corp. in Calgary.

"In the current financial and commodity environment, a lot of producers no longer have access to capital," Mr. Wyman said. "That’s one reason there are so many companies ripe to be plucked."

Start-up companies that acquired leases in the heart of the tar sands during the boom years probably are actively seeking buyers or partners, said John Brussa, chairman of Penn West Energy Trust, a Calgary-based oil and natural-gas producer. Without outside funding, many leaseholders have no hope of ever extracting the crude beneath their feet, he said.

"I suspect some of those will be looking for dance partners," Mr. Brussa said. "Those are the ones I think you will see some transactions in. They are mostly startup types of players that don’t have the capital to take projects forward."

The potential payoff for buyers is huge: The four major tar-sands deposits in Alberta and Saskatchewan contain enough crude to supply every refinery in the U.S. for 33 years. At current prices, the 174-billion barrels of crude buried in the Canadian landscape is worth about US$9-trillion.

The oil sands are attracting interest from Paris to the Persian Gulf. France’s Total SA on March 27 extended its $617-million offer for UTS Energy Corp. to April 16 after UTS dismissed the bid as inadequate. Abu Dhabi National Energy Co. is pursuing oil-sands acquisitions in Canada, according to two people involved in the search.

Investments in the region are bets that energy demand and prices will rebound as recessions end, said Brian Youngberg, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co. in Des Peres, Missouri.

"The larger oil companies are looking for bargains," said Satya Das, founder of Cambridge Strategies Inc., an Edmonton- based strategic advisory firm to energy companies and governments. "There are dozens of smaller companies holding leases that hold millions of barrels of oil but which don’t have access to the capital needed to extract them."

Major oil producers such as Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil and Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, are stepping up investment in Canada after 1990s-era ventures in places such as Venezuela and Russia fell victim to nationalization or crushing increases in taxes and royalties, said Wyman of Canaccord.

Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said in a presentation last month that he prefers joint ventures with state oil companies to takeovers. Shell will look for acquisition opportunities in "the same businesses we are in now," Marvin Odum, the company’s U.S. chief, said in a March 3 interview.

Shell spent about $14-billion combined on two Canadian deals in the past two years. The Hague-based company bought the stock of Calgary-based Shell Canada Ltd. that it didn’t already own in 2007 and acquired Duvernay Oil Corp. last year.

Husky Energy Inc., the Calgary-based energy producer controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, is keeping open the option of oil-sands acquisitions even after plunging crude prices prompted the company to slash capital spending by US$1-billion this year.

"It’s a volatile industry and it’s a volatile market right now," Husky spokesman Graham White said in a March 31 interview. "There’s so much going on right now in terms of volatility that it makes sense to take a step back and reassess, but plans can change."

Other potential acquirers include India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and Beijing-based China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., Asia’s biggest refiner, said Das of Cambridge Strategies.

China Petroleum & Chemical, known as Sinopec, acquired a 10% interest in the Northern Lights oil-sands project in northern Alberta from Total, the Paris-based seller said in an April 1 statement. Sinopec and Total units now share 50-50 ownership of Northern Lights.

Sinopec spokesman Huang Wensheng couldn’t be reached for comment on the company’s acquisition prospects in Canada. Oil & Natural Gas Chairman R.S. Sharma declined to comment.

Among companies identified by analysts as possible takeover targets is Oilsands Quest Inc., which halted work on a project this month after its money ran out, according to a filing.

In the past year, the Calgary-based company issued almost 24 million new shares to raise cash. No new projects will begin without joint-venture partners, additional borrowing or new share sales, the company said.

"It’s too soon to say" whether efforts to raise capital or find partners will succeed, company spokesman Paul O’Donoghue said. He declined to say whether Oilsands Quest is up for sale.

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