Total Stirs Pot by Increasing Stake in Canada's Oilsands

Abstract:TotalFinaElf's decision to take a 43.5 percent interest in a proposed C$1 billion oilsands project will cause a shakeup in the North American energy industry, especially if the European giant eventually decides to build an upgrader.

Analysis:The dynamics of the Canadian oilsands received both a boost and a shakeup this week with the arrival of a new player with international connections and huge resources.

TotalFinaElf SA, the world's fourth largest petroleum company, announced this week it formally acquired a 43.5 per cent interest in the Surmont oilsands project, located near Fort McMurray in northern Alberta.

The Paris-based company bought the stake from operator ConocoPhillips, which retains a similar ownership position. Minority partner Devon Energy holds the remaining 13 percent.

The C$1 billion project, to be built in several stages, is expected eventually to produce 100,000 barrels of bitumen (a tar-like type of extra heavy crude) per day. The development is forecast to recover between five billion to 10 billion barrels of bitumen.

It's not totally accurate to describe Total as a newcomer to Canada's oilsands industry because it has been participating in Surmont since 1999. Exercising the option to acquire half of the interest of ConocoPhillips, which came through Conoco's $6.3 billion takeover of Gulf Canada Resources in 2001, shows the company is seriously stepping up its commitment to non-conventional resources.

The decision by Total, one of four "super-majors" along with BP, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch/Shell, is being spun a couple of ways in Canada.

Boosters of the oilsands, which may contain as much recoverable oil as Saudi Arabia, crowed that Total provides a vote of confidence in the resource, which is easy to find but expensive to extract, especially if natural gas prices keep rising.

For Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the action by Total is a great gift. Liberals can cite Total, a company that scours the globe for opportunities, as an example of how the federal government's adoption of the Kyoto protocol will not compromise the international competitiveness of the energy industry. The claim takes on a little more credibility because Total owns 47 percent of a $4.2 billion heavy oil project, called Sincor, in Venezuela, a country not subject to any emissions limits by the Kyoto pact.

(As an aside, it's interesting to note that Canadian financier Paul Desmarais controls just over 3 percent of Total's shares and sits on its board. His son, Andre Desmarais, is married to Chretien's daughter.)

The French firm's action certainly could undercut the position of True North. The company, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, has talked about delaying or canceling its C$3.5 billion Fort Hills oilsands project partially because of concerns about Kyoto. The reality is Fort Hills' rising costs, which have jumped by about 40 percent, are a much bigger problem than Kyoto's estimated burden of about 25 Canadian cents per barrel of synthetic crude. True North owns 78 percent of Fort Hills, while Canadian junior UTS Energy Corp. holds the remainder.

Total's desire to be an active player in Surmont, currently under consideration by the Alberta Energy & Utilities Board, will have several impacts on Alberta's growing oilsands industry.

Total joins Exxon Mobil and Shell (through their respective Canadian subsidiaries) as players in the unconventional resource, leaving BP as the only super-major on the sidelines. It's possible that BP and other petroleum companies could take another look at investing in Alberta's oilsands in the wake of Total's decision.

A bigger shakeup will likely come on the downstream side of the industry. The head of Total's Canadian operations has said his firm will consider building a regional upgrader, currently not part of the Surmont development.

"It may be intelligent to see if two or three players in the Athabasca oilsands wouldn't join to build a regional upgrader at some point in time at the end of the decade," Jean-Luc Guiziou said in one interview.

Given the size of Total, Surmont by itself isn't going to having a meaningful impact on the European giant. Adding an upgrader, even one costing several billion dollars, would give the firm a much better base to expand its presence in North America. Total currently owns and operates a 156,000 barrels per day refinery in Texas.

And the returns on an upgrader could be quite lucrative. The boom in oilsands projects is expected to cause a glut of bitumen by the end of the decade, dragging down prices and widening the differential between heavy and light/synthetic crudes. The forecast surplus is one reason why Petro-Canada is considering spending more than C$4 billion to expand and convert its existing refinery in Edmonton to use bitumen as a feedstock.

Building a regional upgrader would be good for heavy crude and bitumen producers, but it would increase the supply of synthetic crude looking for a home. While firms like Shell Canada and Petro-Canada would be protected because of their vertical integration, increased competition would put pressure on other firms such as Syncrude Canada, Suncor Energy, Husky Energy, and Canadian Natural Resources. Husky is looking at a C$1.5 billion expansion of its existing upgrader at Lloydminster, Alberta. Canadian Natural is planning a C$4 billion upgrader as part of its C$8 billion Horizon oilsands project, now scheduled to start producing 230,000 barrels of bitumen per day in 2008.

The ripples caused by the extra supply of synthetic crude will also spread to U.S. refiners, especially in the Midwest since the region is a key consumer of bitumen exports from Canada.

While there won't be a lot of visible action in the short term, there's no doubt that producers, refiners, and marketers are going to be reviewing their long-term strategies about the oilsands. Total's entrée has added a soupcon of foreign flavor to Canada's unconventional oil sector and increased the number of options on the menu.