Oil Sands Are Shifting for Total

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We've seen Total (NYSE: TOT  ) amass an impressive oil sands empire over the years. There's its flagship Joslyn project, on which Occidental Petroleum (NYSE: OXY  ) came aboard as a partner last year. Total also has Surmont, in partnership with ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) , and the Northern Lights project, which is now shared 50/50 with Sinopec following a recent realignment.

While Total's commitment to the oil sands has been impressive, a few sticking points have bubbled to the surface recently.

First was the announcement that the company would delay a decision on its huge Joslyn project for a few months. Nothing new there -- this beast was supposed to come onstream in 2010, and now it's looking like 2014 at the earliest.

You can't blame Total for dragging its feet in this environment. Costs got wildly inflated up in the Athabasca basin in Canada over the last few years, perhaps culminating in last September's announcement by Teck Cominco (NYSE: TCK  ) and the other Fort Hills partners that they were looking at a 50% cost overrun. Now that the brakes have been slammed on projects like Suncor's (NYSE: SU  ) Voyageur expansion and StatoilHydro's (NYSE: STO  ) Edmonton refinery, costs are collapsing. Total can certainly stretch its dollars by sitting on the sidelines for a while.

Speaking of Joslyn, there's also an interesting court case involving Total's acquisition of Deer Creek Energy, the prior leaseholder there. Paulson & Co., now the third-largest hedge fund in the world after cashing in on the credit crunch, has been disputing the fairness of this takeover offer for years now. Total beat out Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) in a bidding war, ultimately paying C$31 per share. Paulson claimed at the time that Deer Creek was demonstrably worth somewhere between three to five times that amount, but lost the ensuing court battle in 2006.

Fast-forward to today, and Paulson is still at it. The fund's management believes the valuation method used by the judge was faulty last time around, and is pressing to have the decision appealed. Paulson wants a new trial where the basis for valuation is a discounted cash flow method.

The third piece of news is that Total has withdrawn its takeover bid for UTS Energy, a player in the aforementioned Fort Hills partnership. Total's offer, contingent on two-thirds of shareholders tendering, expired on Monday evening.

Some see this as a bluff on Total's part, while others argue that it doesn't need yet another oil sands project. Time will tell. Either way, Fools ought to keep a close eye on Total's oil sands adventures.

StatoilHydro and Total are Income Investor selections. See what other solid dividend payers the team is recommending to subscribers with a free 30-day trial.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. Check out his Motley Fool CAPS profile or follow his articles using Twitter or RSS. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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