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Efficiency, Innovation Are New Status Quo, Canadian Industry Told

A leaner Canadian industry is emerging, fit to survive the third straight year of low oil and natural gas prices, Suncor Energy Inc. confirmed Thursday in an investor guidance forecast of 2017 performance.

As the nation’s top producer, Suncor projected a 13% jump to combined oil and gas output equivalent to 680,000-720,000 b/d next year at the same time as about C$1 billion (US$750 million) is pared off corporate capital spending.

In the statement to investors Suncor President Steve Williams vowed, “We will maintain unwavering focus on cost management.”

Efficiency improvements reported by the Calgary firm include the oilsands that critics label the costliest supply source and most likely major casualty of low energy prices. Analysts speculated that tarnished views of the economic outlook for northern Alberta’s resource crown jewel contributed to a high-profile selloff of 30 million Suncor shares this year by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

Suncor said production costs at its wholly owned, 49-year-old bitumen mining and upgrading complex dropped by 37% since 2011. Expenses for 2017 output, expected to average 420,000-450,000 b/d, are forecast to be C$24-27 (US$18-20)/bbl.

At the comparable but newer Syncrude plant costs for Suncor’s production share, 95,000-105,000 b/d, are forecast to be C$32-35 (US$24-26)/bbl.

Oilsands expenses will be held down despite an anticipated increase of C$1.00 (US$0.75) due to a projected modest 2017 rise in prices for natural gas used by the plants’ thermal extraction, upgrading and power generation.

Western Canadian gas is widely forecast to recover next year into a range of C$2.25-2.65/gigajoule (GJ) (US$1.77-2.08/MMBtu) from the 2016 hard-times average of C$1.65-1.95/GJ (US$1.30-1.54/MMBtu).

Suncor’s pared-down 2017 budget includes continued construction of a 180,000 b/d addition to its oilsands plants called Fort Hills, plus a 21% share in the 150,000 b/d Hebron offshore project led by ExxonMobil and Chevron on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

Activity revivals are also beginning, on a smaller scale with lower-cost resource targets, among independent Canadian gas and oil producers. Annual fall investor guidance forecasts and budget announcements to date include resumed 2017 growth by ARC Resources, Enerplus Corp., Painted Pony Petroleum, Storm Resources and Whitecap Resources.

The independent, mid-sized firms are focusing on use of improving Canadian versions of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to expand output of shale and tight gas, liquid byproducts and oil in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

The efficiency drive reflects an attitude that stood out in an inner sanctum when 60-year Calgary industry veteran Jim Gray addressed the Canadian Petroleum Industry Hall of Fame’s annual induction ceremony.

“The status quo is dead or dying,” Gray said as he accepted the hall’s 20th anniversary lifetime achievement award. His accomplishments include building, with U.S.-born geologist John Masters, Canadian Hunter Exploration from scratch into a top natural gas producer that fetched C$3.3 billion (US$2.5 billion) in a 2001 corporate takeover.

Gray urged the Canadian industry peerage to take seriously radical innovations such as electric vehicles and miracle materials like Nobel Prize-winning graphene, which has potential to make the better batteries needed for conversion to zero-emission cars.

Gray said, “I cannot stand here and tell you that in my opinion the present circumstances of our industry are temporary; that all will be okay. That all we need is a bit of patience and it will return to normal. By normal I mean substantially higher wellhead prices for oil and natural gas. I can’t say that because I don’t believe it.”

The fat years of high double- and triple digit oil prices turned out to be a setback by letting companies coast and postpone adaptation to technological and environmental forces. “In the context of innovation and change $100 crude was the worst thing that happened to our industry and province. Alternately, $30 crude was the best,” Gray said.

“We must stay engaged and monitor technical change throughout the world. We must be part of the action,” Gray said. “We Albertans have the skills. We will also need the determination and energy required to secure the benefits of disruptive change.”

Gray expressed the wary Canadian outlook after the election of avowedly pro-industry Donald Trump as president of the United States. While the Calgary oil and gas capital has cheered Trump’s support for TransCanada to revive the Keystone XL proposal for an express pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico from Alberta, the project is not seen as a cure for low prices.

In a note to numerous industry clients the Borden Ladner Gervais law firm said the Trump triumph raises questions for Canadian gas and oil producers. “Of particular interest will be whether economic or tax incentives to the U.S. oil and gas industry impact the competitive position of high cost Canadian producers now entering their third year of battered commodity prices -- and the extent to which greater market access to U.S. refiners makes a Trump win ultimately beneficial to the industry.

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