​Chinese companies commit to oilsands despite setbacks and operating challenges

SAGD well pad at Petrochina Canada's MacKay River project north of Fort McMurray. Image: Deborah Jaremko/JWN

CALGARY — While some European and U.S. companies cut their exposure to the Canadian oilsands, China's Big Three oil giants — CNOOC, PetroChina and Sinopec — seem content to let their bets ride even if the results haven't been spectacular.

In 2018, PetroChina produced an average of just 7,300 barrels per day of bitumen from its MacKay River thermal oilsands project, although it was designed to produce 35,000 bbls/d. In June, its output was about 8,700 bbls/d.

The Beijing-based company paid $1.9 billion in 2009 for 60 per cent interests in the proposed MacKay River and Dover oilsands projects being developed by Athabasca Oil Sands Corp. (now Athabasca Oil Corp.), then bought out the rest of MacKay for $680 million in 2012 and Dover for $1.2 billion in 2014.

“MacKay River is located in an area with complex geology, which creates challenges to heat up the reservoir to get the bitumen flowing,” said spokesman Davis Sheremata in an emailed statement.

The company is drilling new wells and experimenting with various technologies to boost output, he said, adding a go-ahead for Dover has been put on hold until MacKay proves itself.

Still, “PetroChina Canada is committed to Canada for the long-term, having maintained its investments through economically challenging times.”

CNOOC produced about 71,000 bbls/d from the oilsands in 2018, little changed from 66,800 bbls/d in 2014, shortly after it spent $15.1 billion to buy Calgary's Nexen Energy and its diverse portfolio of domestic and international assets.

“Our oilsands assets are an important part of our North American portfolio and we remain committed to our Canadian operations,” CNOOC spokesman Kyle Glennie wrote in a brief email.

Meanwhile, Sinopec paid $4.65 billion to buy a nine per cent stake in the Syncrude oilsands mining consortium from ConocoPhillips in 2010 and its resulting production has been steady since, registering just over 27,000 bbls/d in 2018.

The Chinese energy majors employ “patient capital” and it seems unlikely they will leave the oilsands anytime soon, said Jia Wang, deputy director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

“The assets they bought may not be the most profitable or may require more capital intensive development. ... (but) these are large Chinese companies, they're not likely to become bankrupt,” she said.

“They have been through thick and thin, and different cycles of boom and bust. These (oilsands) operations in the grand scheme of these massive companies are not the largest chunk of their business so they can afford to have a presence here without incurring too much loss.”

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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