* C$1.5 bln for growth at oil sands operations
* To ramp up construction of 68,000 bpd Firebag stage 3
* Plans Firebag stage 4 with end-2012 production target
* Shares rise 1.2 pct to C$36.90 (Recasts, adds details, comments; changes dateline from Toronto)
By Scott Haggett
CALGARY, Alberta, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Suncor Energy Inc (SU.TO), Canada’s biggest oil company, said on Friday it has earmarked C$5.5 billion ($5.23 billion) for capital expenditures next year and will restart projects the economic crisis had forced it to suspend.
Suncor, which dominates Canada’s oil sands region following its C$22.7 billion acquisition of Petro-Canada in August, is targeting an additional 136,000 barrels per day of production from its holdings there by the end of 2012 as it completes stages 3 and 4 of the recession-delayed Firebag thermal project.
Outlining his development priorities for the first time since completing the Petro-Canada takeover, Chief Executive Rick George said Suncor will concentrate on boosting output from its massive oil sands holdings, containing as much as 22 billion barrels of tar-like bitumen.
“Suncor will continue to be dominated by oil sands,” he said on a conference call. “That’s where our reserves are.”
George said Suncor aims to grow oil sands production, targeted at 300,000 barrels per day this year, by 10 percent to 12 percent annually through 2020.
Both Suncor and Petro-Canada halted major oil sands projects last year as the economic crisis caused commodity prices to plunge and made credit scarce and expensive.
However, with oil prices and economies recovering, George said Suncor’s northern Alberta operations could again be profitable, generating a 15 percent return when oil sells for $70 a barrel.
Suncor said it expects the 68,000 bpd stage 3 of its Firebag thermal project — where steam is forced into the ground to liquefy the tarry bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface — to produce its first oil in the second quarter of 2011, and the similarly sized stage 4 will be complete by the end of 2012.
However the company declined to say when it planned to develop Petro-Canada’s Fort Hills project, which was suspended last year when costs soared to C$21 billion for the mine and an upgrader, though some estimates say the mine alone could now be built for around $8 billion.
“Obviously, (Fort Hills) is not in this first leg,” George said. “It is hard for us to see the project economics beating Firebag 3 or 4, or other projects we have in the near term ... (Suncor) is not just sure, at this point, exactly where Fort Hills fits into the development plan overall.”
Suncor owns 60 percent of Fort Hills, with Teck Resources Ltd TCKb.TO and junior oil sands developer UTS Energy Corp UTS.TO, each holding 20 percent.
UTS shares fell as much as 13 percent on the Toronto Stock Exchange before recovering somewhat. The stock was down 8 Canadian cents, or 3.7 percent, at C$2.09 by late Friday morning.
“The market has largely digested the lack of clarity on Fort Hills,” said Chris Feltin, an analyst at Macquarie Securities Canada. “Maybe there’s a little disappointment; there wasn’t a firm timeline set out one way or another.”
Of its C$5.5 billion budget, Suncor will use C$1.5 billion for growth projects at its oil sands operations and elsewhere, targeting output of 350,000 bpd by the end of 2010. About C$4 billion is earmarked for sustaining existing operations.
“With these spending levels, we believe Suncor will likely generate C$2 billion to C$3 billion per year of free cash flow,” UBS analyst Andrew Potter said in a note to clients.
Included in the plans for next year is cash to to complete a naphtha unit at its oil sands operations and expand the St. Clair ethanol plant in southern Ontario.
Suncor said its ongoing spending plans take into account the expected savings from its acquisition of Petro-Canada.
The company forecasts about C$400 million in annual savings from workforce reductions, product marketing and supply chain optimization.
Suncor shares rose 46 Canadian cents to C$36.90 by midmorning on Friday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
$1=$1.05 Canadian Additional reporting by Euan Rocha in Toronto and Ajay Kamalakaran in Bangalore; editing by Rob Wilson