A New Star in the Oil Sands

I'm pretty sure everyone and his mother has an oil sands project now.

The latest company to jump into the Athabasca deposit in Canada is California's Occidental Petroleum (NYSE: OXY  ) . The firm has agreed to pick up a 15% stake in Total SA's (NYSE: TOT  ) major Joslyn project for about half a billion dollars. While my hometown energy hulk doesn't currently operate in Canada, this is familiar ground for Oxy -- the company we now call Nexen (NYSE: NXY  ) used to be CanadianOxy, at the time an 80%-owned subsidiary.

While Oxy's investment marks a new entry in the oil sands, Enerplus Resources Fund's (NYSE: ERF  ) sale of the stake doesn't denote a departure. Enerplus is merely optimizing its asset portfolio. Remember last year, when Devon (NYSE: DVN  ) decided to shed some oil sands lands in order to focus on an in-situ project? Enerplus is mirroring that move by focusing on its 100%-owned and operated Kirby project. In-situ recovery, unlike open-pit bitumen mining, is much closer to conventional oil recovery. Bulk mining just doesn't suit smaller players.

Enerplus has actually been shopping its Joslyn stake since March. Perhaps the company foresaw the ensuing regulatory delays that have pushed back the project startup by at least a year. Today's environmental hurdles are tough to clear, as fellow oil sands miners Suncor (NYSE: SU  ) and Canadian Natural Resources (NYSE: CNQ  ) can certainly attest. In-situ recovery is no panacea, but like any investor, Enerplus is best off sticking within its circle of competence.

This has to be a welcome development for Total as well. Occidental offers both great financial muscle and technological savvy. With these two energy giants putting their noggins together, even a tough regulatory regime shouldn't prove insurmountable.

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Fool contributor Toby Shute and Oxy are neighbors, but the company has never come asking to borrow a cup of sugar. Toby doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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