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Feb 20, 2019

U.S.-based Devon Energy intends to exit Canadian oil sands

Scotia analyst pokes holes in Notley's 'no risk' crude-by-rail plan

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CALGARY -- Another foreign oil company says it's getting out of the Canadian oilsands.

Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy Corp. announced after markets closed Tuesday that it will pursue the "separation" of its Canadian assets and its Barnett Shale holdings in Texas from its core business.

It intends to open data rooms for potential suitors in the second quarter and says it hopes to announce by year-end a deal or deals that could include an outright sale or creation of new companies to own and operate the assets.

"With our world-class U.S. oil resource plays rapidly building momentum and achieving operating scale, the final step in our multi-year transformation is an aggressive, transformational move that will accelerate value creation for our shareholders by further simplifying our resource-rich asset portfolio," said CEO Dave Hager in a news release.

Devon's shares rose by as much as 14.9 per cent to US$32.53 on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday morning, but subsided to $30.69 by mid-afternoon.

Other foreign companies that have reduced their ownership in the oilsands in recent years include Norway's Statoil, France's Total SA, Arkansas-based Murphy Oil and Houston-based ConocoPhillips.

Devon owns the Jackfish steam-driven oilsands complex, which opened in 2007 and has grown through three identical phases to a capacity of 105,000 barrels per day of bitumen (although it has produced as much as 128,000 bpd in the past).

It's also the operator of the proposed 105,000-bpd Pike oilsands project in a 50/50 partnership with London-based BP PLC. Pike received provincial regulatory approval in 2014 but has not yet been green-lighted for construction.

It also owns conventional heavy oil wells near Lloydminster, Alta., that produce more than 15,000 bpd.

Both Pike and Jackfish are south of Fort McMurray near similar operations owned by Calgary-based rivals Cenovus Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and MEG Energy Corp.

In research notes, CIBC analyst Jon Morrison says the Canadian assets would likely fetch between $3.5 billion and $5 billion if sold, while Eight Capital analyst Phil Skolnick estimates they could sell for between $7 billion and $9 billion.

"Although we believe the asset base is attractive and provides a large base of concentrated production with a long resource tail, this is a challenging market to divest Canadian oil assets," wrote Morrison, citing the current forced Alberta curtailments designed to draw down a glut of trapped crude oil and "the opaqueness and unknowns" due to a lack of long-term pipeline takeaway capacity in Western Canada.

The most likely purchasers are large Canadian oilsands companies led by Imperial Oil Ltd., but possibly including Canadian Natural, Husky Energy Inc. and Suncor Energy Inc., he said.

Husky's recent failed attempt to buy MEG for a combination of cash and shares makes it an obvious potential buyer, said Skolnick, but he suggested Devon's preference for cash to pay down debt may make a Husky offer less likely.

Imperial is the most likely buyer, he said, because Devon's assets would give immediate exposure to improving heavy oil prices.

That would allow Imperial to postpone its proposed Aspen oilsands project after recently calling its future into question in response to the Alberta curtailments and their affect on crude-by-rail economics.

A spokesman for Husky said the company looks at any investment opportunities that arise but had no further comment.

Spokespeople for Imperial, Suncor and Canadian Natural said their policies are not to comment on acquisition plans or speculation.

In 2014, Canadian Natural acquired conventional Devon oil and gas operations in Western Canada for about $3.1 billion.

The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Wolf Midstream Inc. spent $1.4 billion to buy Devon's half ownership of the Access oilsands pipeline in 2016.