Fort Hills partner UTS sees Fort Hills starting up in late 2015

CALGARY — The very earliest at which crude will begin flowing out of the Fort Hills oilsands project will be late 2015, the chief executive of UTS Energy Corp. (TSX:UTS) said Monday.

CALGARY — The very earliest at which crude will begin flowing out of the Fort Hills oilsands project will be late 2015, the chief executive of UTS Energy Corp. (TSX:UTS) said Monday.

“You have to have some patience,” Will Roach told analysts on a conference call Monday to discuss his company’s third-quarter results.

“I understand from the shareholder perspective that’s not always very attractive. But these oilsands assets are long-term in nature, very high capital intensity and you have to spend the right time to get the right technologies and the right strategy to develop them.”

Suncor Energy Inc. (TSX:SU) is the operator of Fort Hills with a 60 per cent stake; UTS and Vancouver-based miner Teck Resources Ltd. (TSX:TCK.B) evenly split the rest.

Suncor inherited the Fort Hills interest through its merger with Petro-Canada in August.

On Friday, Suncor chief executive Rick George said moving ahead with Fort Hills would not be a priority in 2010 and expansions to its Firebag project would be first in the queue.

“Obviously it is not in this first leg. It’s hard for us to see project economics beating Firebag 3 or 4 for other projects that we have, certainly in the near term,” George said.

UTS expected its partner would make that decision, given that the Firebag is much further along in development than Fort Hills.

“This comes as no surprise and actually we’re quite constructively looking at this development,” Roach said.

“We think it will take about a year to sort out the best way to develop Fort Hills and it shows really that there’s quite complicated and large opportunities for synergies with the Suncor infrastructure.”

On a conference call with analysts Friday to go over its spending plans for next year, George said Suncor would target an average of 10 to 12 per cent annual production growth in the oilsands through to 2020.

Fort Hills will need to come on stream some time in the next decade in order for Suncor to meet that target, Roach said.

Ray Reipas, vice-president of energy at Teck Resources Inc., said the mining company is talking with its partners.

“We are committed to working with Suncor and UTS to optimize the Fort Hills project in both its design and schedule,” Reipas said.

UTS is in a “waiting game” until Suncor makes a decision on Fort Hills late next year, wrote UBS Investment Research analyst Andrew Potter in a note to clients Monday.

“Despite the lack of clarity concerning Fort Hills, the market for oil sands transactions appears to be heating up with resource valuations coming back in-line to 2008 levels,” he said.

“This should provide some positive read-through for UTS with the potential for the company to be an acquisition target.”

In addition to Fort Hills, UTS also splits ownership of the Frontier and Equinox oilsands properties with Teck.

UTS recently sold its half-interest in the Lease 421 area to Imperial Oil Ltd. (TSX:IMO) and its U.S. parent company ExxonMobil Corp. (NYSE:XOM) for $250 million.

That transaction marked the end of a strategic review triggered by a hostile takeover bid from French energy giant Total S.A.’s Canadian arm earlier this year.

Another small oilsands player, Opti Canada Inc. (TSX:OPC), is in the midst of a strategic review of its own, in which a sale of the company or its assets are being weighed.

On Monday, Opti said it intends to fund that process through a US$425 million private placement offering of senior secured notes.

Late Friday UTS said it lost $4.7 million in the third quarter compared with a loss of $936,000 a year ago.

The loss for the quarter ended Sept. 30 amounted to a penny per share compared with a loss of $936,000 or 0.2 cents per share a year ago.

Revenue totalled $205,000, down from $3 million.

UTS shares rose four cents, or 1.9 per cent, to $2.17 on the Toronto Stock Exchange Monday.

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