Suncor Energy keeps calm and carries on Despite the turmoil besetting the oilpatch

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by Bruce Lantz

Suncor Energy keeps calm and carries on Despite the turmoil besetting the oilpatch and, indeed, the world of late, one firm has positioned itself well to survive and thrive.

The energy industry has suffered from low prices, regulatory boondoggles and environmental protests for many months, a situation exacerbated by the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. These circumstances have forced the sale or, indeed, the closure of many operations, but Suncor Energy Inc. [SU-TSX, NYSE], headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, is better positioned than most, despite share prices that have tumbled more than 12% in the face of crude dipping to as low as US $25 a barrel in the US, under US $10 a barrel in Canada.

“We are living in an era of transformation – as a company, as an industry and as a global community,” Suncor President and CEO Mark Little said in a remarkably prescient sustainably report in late 2019. “Many will choose to take a step back. Suncor will continue to step forward to demonstrate leadership in an increasingly complex world.

“What’s certain is that Canada has a significant strategic resource in the oil sands that will continue to play an important role in the energy mix for the foreseeable future. What is also certain is that, collectively, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly.”

Suncor is known as Canada’s leading integrated energy company, with operations that include oil sands development and upgrading, offshore oil and gas production, petroleum refining and product marketing. Their integrated oil sands business contributed to Suncor’s strong cash generation of more than $10 billion in 2019, for the second year in a row. Now, Little said, Suncor is planning for profitable growth at a low capital cost in the medium term, avoiding significant production increases requiring large capital investments. “We continue to target cost reductions across our operations without compromising our core value of safety.”

There is “considerable uncertainty” about the impact and duration of the Government of Alberta’s mandatory production curtailment, which has adversely impacted the company’s Syncrude and Fort Hills operations due to the “continued, disproportionate effect of curtailment” as it is applied on a 2018 production basis when neither asset was operating at nameplate capacity, Little said. That said, the company has factored both the lower and higher ends of the curtailment into its production guidance.

Unlike many resource-based companies, Suncor has for years been diversifying and embracing new technologies, including electric vehicles served by Suncor’s Petro-Can [PCZ-TSX] stations across Canada, wind power, energy-efficient cogeneration facilities and investment in a world-leading waste-to-biofuels and chemical producer, Enerkem Inc. [NRKM-NASDAQ], and a digital transformation in partnership with Microsoft Canada [MSFT-NASDAQ]. This Suncor Energy’s Petro-Canada is contributing $3 million over the coming days and weeks at Petro-Canada locations across the country where associates and their teams will acknowledge Canadians who are supporting essential work during this time of COVID-19 whether they are a health care worker, truck driver ensuring needed products are delivered, transit worker, or a grocery store, pharmacy or food delivery service employee.

“With more than 1,850 retail and wholesale locations across the country, we are in a unique position to reach Canadians and support them during these unprecedented times,” said Mark Little, President and CEO, Suncor. year alone the company has invested CAD $635 million in technology development and deployment.

“This is a significant step forward for our industry,” said Little. “We are finding ways to alter the carbon content in a barrel of crude oil and, in some cases, leave a portion of that carbon in the ground before it becomes a problematic gas. No other oil-producing jurisdiction is doing this – and as we make further advances this will help Canada to earn the trust needed to be the progressive supplier of choice to the global community.”

Suncor’s 2020 year-over-year oil-related spend is expected to be flat, though production is expected to increase about 5% to 800,000-840,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. But capital spending will be nearly $6 billion, including incremental spending of $300 million on the new cogeneration facility, $150 million on digital technology initiatives, and $50 million on completion of the Syncrude bi-directional pipelines. Suncor’s 200 megawatt Forty Mile Wind Power Project in southern Alberta has an estimated total capital spend of $300 million from 2019-21.

“This unique investment approach in renewable energy is expected to generate double-digit, sustainable economic returns through power generation and retaining the generated carbon credits for utilization in the core business,” the company said in a report.

Little said Suncor, in 2020, will continue to focus on “value over volume,” investing in high-return projects largely independent of pipeline constraints and commodity price fluctuations to deliver on the company’s $2 billion incremental free funds flow target by 2023. “These initiatives continue to position our company as financially and environmentally sustainable by driving long-term value creation, increasing shareholder returns, and lowering the carbon intensity of our production,” he said. Suncor plans to reduce the total greenhouse gas emissions intensity of its oil and petroleum projects by 30% by 2030. To that end, in 2019 the company invested $635 million in technology development and deployment, including digital transformation.

Among Suncor’s noteworthy projects, Petro-Canada now has a network of 50 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations at 50 of its 1,500 stations along the Trans-Canada Highway from Victoria to Stewiacke, Nova Scotia to serve the more than 100,000 EVs on the road in Canada with an average of 4,000 being added each month. It’s part of Canada’s Electric Highway, an initiative supported in part by $4.6 million in federal funding.

Suncor also added a $73 million equity investment in Enerkem last year and provides technical resources to that firm’s Enerkem Alberta Biofuels plant in Edmonton – the first commercial-scale plant in the world to turn non-recyclable, non-compostable mixed municipal solid waste into cellulosic ethanol, a popular biofuel. Also, Microsoft has been chosen as Suncor’s strategic cloud provider to empower a connected, collaborative work-force, upgrade data centres and increase analytics capabilities.

Finally, Suncor is replacing its coke-fired boilers with two cogeneration units at its Oil Sands Base Plant, providing steam generation required for extraction and upgrading and generating 800 megawatts of power which will be transmitted to Alberta’s grid, equivalent to about 8% of the province’s electricity demand. This project will cost $1.4 billion and is expected to be in service in the second half of 2023.

“This is a great example of how Suncor deploys capital in projects that are economically robust, sustainably minded and technologically progressive,” Little said in a news release.

Suncor has the scale, financial strength and expertise to lead the transformation of Canada’s energy sector, he said. “Our own journey has been one of continuous transformation…As a company we have gone from Suncor 1.0 (figuring out how to get the bitumen out of the ground), to Suncor 2.0 (making money at it), to Suncor 3.0 (merging with Petro-Canada which provided integration and an opportunity to access value across the entire value chain).”

He said the next phase, Suncor 4.0, involves playing a leadership role in sustainability “and transforming the energy system and harnessing innovation while using data and technology to improve our business.”

“What I’ve seen in my 11 years with this company, and in my first year as president and CEO, tells me our purpose – to provide trusted energy that enhances peoples’ lives, while caring for each other and the Earth – is within reach…As the calendar turns on a new decade, I am confident and optimistic about what we will achieve.”

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