February 15, 2018 / 11:31 AM / in 8 months

UPDATE 2-Debt-cutting Cenovus Energy eyes sale of Deep Basin assets

(Recasts with executive comments on asset sales and rail talks from conference call, adds context, shares)

By Rod Nickel

WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Canadian oil and gas producer Cenovus Energy Inc is looking to sell assets in Western Canada’s Deep Basin, but will not part with its refinery business as it works to reduce debt, its chief executive said on Thursday.

The Calgary-based company’s new chief executive, Alex Pourbaix, has been cutting jobs and lowering operating expenses, following a purchase last year of ConocoPhillips’ Canadian assets that was unpopular with shareholders.

“We simply have more (Deep Basin) opportunities than we can capitalize within any reasonable time frame,” Pourbaix said on a quarterly post-earnings conference call with analysts, declining to quantify the assets up for sale.

The Deep Basin straddles the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.

Cenovus also owns 50 percent stakes in two U.S. refineries, as part of a joint venture with Phillips 66. In the long run, the company would like to expand that business, and is not looking to sell it, Pourbaix said.

Canadian heavy oil producers have been stung in recent months by a larger than usual price discount for their crude compared to benchmark West Texas Intermediate oil, due to expanding Alberta production and tight transportation capacity.

Pourbaix said the problem should ease in the short term, when TransCanada Corp’s Keystone pipeline returns to full pressure following a leak last year, and as crude sent by rail increases.

Cenovus is in “active negotiations” with Canadian National Railway Co and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd about moving more crude, said Cenovus senior vice-president of downstream, Keith Chiasson.

Cenovus shares fell over 6 percent in Toronto on Thursday. Some investors may have been disappointed that the company has not already secured additional railway capacity, said Michael Dunn, analyst at GMP FirstEnergy.

Earlier on Thursday, Cenovus reported that fourth-quarter profit soared, as production nearly doubled after the Conoco Phillips assets acquisition and the company reined in expenses.

Cenovus said it reduced general and administrative costs by 44 percent per barrel of oil equivalent and oil sands operating costs by 6 percent per barrel in 2017 from 2016.

The company’s net income jumped to C$620 million ($497 million), or 50 Canadian cents per share, in the quarter, from C$91 million, or 11 Canadian cents per share, in the year-ago period. ($1 = C$1.25) (Additional reporting by Ahmed Farhatha in Bengaluru; Editing by Maju Samuel and Rosalba O’Brien)

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