CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Husky Energy Inc's (HSE.TO) fourth-quarter profit nearly tripled as production and oil prices rose, the company said on Thursday, but the results lagged estimates due to higher-than-expected exploration expenses and taxes.
Husky, one of Canada's largest producers of heavy crude oil, also warned that weakness in pricing for heavy crude grades as well as volatile refining margins have become a factor in 2012.
Still, the company's integrated structure, which in recent years was bolstered by the addition of two refineries in Ohio, has meant that weak pricing for heavy oil production can be counteracted in the processing of the crude, Chief Executive Asim Ghosh said.
Husky is a dominant producer of heavy crude in Western Canada and also runs an 82,000 barrel a day plant that upgrades it into refinery-ready light oil.
This month, discounts for Canadian heavy and light synthetic oil have widened to the largest in several years as industry-wide production has surged against a backdrop of limited pipeline capacity for export. Heavy crude has sold for as much as $35.50 a barrel under benchmark West Texas Intermediate this week, about double the discount of a month ago.
"We firmly believe in the merits of a balanced portfolio and internal hedges," Ghosh said. "I think that diversification of the portfolio has proven to be a moderating factor in our results over the past year, and as we get more and more focused on creating those balances, we just want to (protect) the company from such volatilities."
Husky, controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, said net income jumped to C$408 million ($410 million), or 42 Canadian cents a share, from C$139 million, or 16 Canadian cents, a year earlier.
Excluding unusual items, the company earned C$481 million, or 50 Canadian cents a share.
The adjusted result lagged the average analyst estimate for the measure of 55 Canadian cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Cash flow, a key indicator of a company's ability to pay for new projects, climbed 75 percent to C$1.2 billion, or C$1.24 a share, from C$685 million, or 80 Canadian cents a share.
Production rose 14 percent to 318,900 barrels of oil equivalent per day, with strong gains from Husky's offshore fields in the North Atlantic off Newfoundland: North Amethyst and White Rose.
Output in the region will be tempered in 2012 by scheduled maintenance on the production vessels for White Rose as well as the Terra Nova field, the company said.
The results matched operational estimates but lagged in the financial categories, CIBC World Markets analyst Andrew Potter said in a research note. He said refining and marketing results were below his expectations, with weaker than expected Canadian operations.
Still, the stock was up 27 Canadian cents, or 1 percent, at C$25.15 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Thursday afternoon.
Husky's averaged realized oil price rose nearly 30 percent to C$88.97 a barrel, and refining margins in the United States were lucrative in the quarter, the company said.
Natural gas prices fell 8 percent to C$3.24 per thousand cubic feet.
Chief Financial Officer Alister Cowan told analysts that the company has no plans to shut in any natural gas production as a result of chronically weak prices as it is still making money.
Husky has chopped dry gas development spending and, like numerous other producers, is concentrating on gas prospects that offer higher-value liquids opportunities, he said. The company also uses about a third of its gas production at its own facilities, including the upgrader and at steam-driven heavy oil operations.
Among major projects, Husky's Liwan gas development in the South China Sea is on track to start production in late 2013 or early 2014, ramping up after startup to 300 million cubic feet a day.
Its 60,000 barrel a day Sunrise oil sands project in northern Alberta, a joint venture with BP Plc (BP.L), is targeted for first production of 2014. Husky said more than half the drilling for the development is complete and construction activity at the site is accelerating.
Additional reporting by Aftab Ahmed; Editing by Peter Galloway