Suncor Energy, Canada’s largest oil and gas producer, says that this year it will apply to the province’s regulatory authorities to build a new thermal oil sands project. The Lewis project could eventually produce up 160,000 bpd of bitumen. The news is a further sign that domestic Canadian companies are digging in even as multi-nationals exit the high-cost oil sands region.
A proposed multi-stage in situ project, Lewis will be located some 25 km northeast of Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta. Suncor, the largest operator in the oil sands, says it is exploring new technologies for the project, such as including vaporised solvents and electromagnetic heating, but that the primary option currently is steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) supported by the co-generation of electricity.
Construction on the first phase of Lewis may begin in 2024, with first steam expected in 2027, says Suncor, once the project is officially green-lighted by the Calgary-based company and has regulatory approval.
The firm’s proposed 80,000 bpd Meadow Creek East steam-driven oil sands project south of Fort McMurray received regulatory approval from the Alberta Energy Regulator in March. Suncor has also applied for approval for the nearby 40,000 bpd Meadow Creek West project.
In late April, Suncor reported much better-than-expected first-quarter net profits of C$1.35 billion (US$989.6 million) or 81 Canadian cents per share, up dramatically from earnings of C$257 million (US$188.2 million), or 17 Canadian cents per share, a year earlier.
Executives said that higher oil process and lower operating costs had helped boost the returns. The profit came despite the company having cut production in its majority-owned 350,000 bpd Syncrude project following damage caused by a fire.
Suncor took over a controlling interest in the Syncrude project with a hostile takeover in 2016. Suncor says it expects its share of the project’s output to be 135,000-150,000 bpd for 2017, down from the 150,000- 165,000 barrels previously predicted. A return to full production is anticipated in June. Costs there are projected to rise from C$32-35 (US$23.46-25.63) per barrel to as much as C$36-39 (US$26.39-28.59) per barrel.
Suncor CEO Steve Williams had told a press conference after the firm’s annual shareholder meeting in late April that Suncor might expand its presence in the oil sands if more global companies exited the region, but it is not a priority. “I often get asked: would I want more of it?” he told reporters. “At the right price, it might be possible, but it’s not at the top of my agenda.”
Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL) had acquired Royal Dutch Shell’s oil sand assets, while ConocoPhillips’ oil sand assets were bought by Cenovus Energy. There is speculation that Chevron, BP and French oil major Total may also leave the high-cost oil sands.
Williams, however, welcomed what he described as the “Canadianisation” of the oil sands sector that could allow the industry to align its interests with those of the provincial and federal government. The trend is “a good thing,” Williams said. “It aligns the Canadian interests.”
“Now what we have [is] a Canadian resource, increasingly owned by Canadian corporations, working with Canadian provincial and federal governments to try and get the proper access with absolutely the right environmental standards to market,” he continued. “So you get a bit of a Canadian brand on that and I like that, [as long as we look] after the Canadian interests, because this is a very competitive world and we have to do some of that.”
Despite US President Donald Trump’s tough talk regarding Canada, Williams said that the US would likely not act to harm Canadian oil and gas, in part because so much heavy Canadian crude is refined on the US Gulf Coast.
“I am optimistic the right things will happen,” he said. “I think there will be some positioning, some posturing. Maybe the best indicator we have got is that after all of the discussion, one of the very first things that President Trump did was [to] approve the Presidential Permit for Keystone XL.” The pipeline will transport Canadian oil sands crude to the Gulf Coast.