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(Reuters) - Canadian Natural Resources Ltd CNQ.TO posted a fourth-quarter profit, helped by higher production, and Canada's largest independent oil explorer increased its quarterly dividend by 17 percent.
The company, which increased the dividend to 10.5 Canadian cents per share, said it was on track to restart operations at its Horizon oil sands project in Alberta.
Last month, the project was shut due to problems with a fractionator unit. The company had earlier said the plant will not return to full output until mid- to late March.
The extended outage forced it to cut its 2012 production target for the operation to 93,000-103,000 barrels a day from the previous forecast of 105,000-115,000 bpd.
On Thursday, the company said it reduced its planned natural gas capital expenditure for the year by $170 million, which is expected to slash natural gas output by about 20 million cubic feet per day (MMcf/d) and 460 barrels of liquids per day in the year.
Canadian Natural, which has hedged 40 percent of its natural gas production for 2012, expects to produce an average of 1,247 to 1,297 MMcf/d of natural gas in the year.
Canadian Natural, which operates in Canada, the North Sea and offshore West Africa, earned C$832 million ($830.13 million), or 76 Canadian cents a share, compared with a net loss of C$309 million, or 28 Canadian cents a share, last year.
Excluding unusual items, the company earned 88 cents a share, ahead of analysts' expectations of 86 Canadian cents a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Cash flow, a glimpse into the company's ability to fund future operations, was up 31 percent at C$2.16 billion, or C$1.96 a share.
Production rose 2 percent to 657,599 barrels of oil equivalent per day.
The company's shares closed at C$35.14 on Wednesday on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The stock has fallen 8 percent since the start of the year.
($1 = 1.0023 Canadian dollars)
Reporting by Eileen Anupa Soreng and Abhiram Nandakumar in Bangalore; Editing by Maju Samuel