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Growing Pains for Suncor

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Last week, I declared it was "game on" in the Canadian oil sands. From Imperial Oil (AMEX: IMO  ) and ExxonMobil's (NYSE: XOM  ) Kearl project to Total (NYSE: TOT  ) and ConocoPhillips' (NYSE: COP  ) Surmont project, there's suddenly a lot of activity up in Athabasca. Let's see how Suncor (NYSE: SU  ) fits into this picture of revival.

In terms of oil sands production, Suncor's fourth quarter was a bit of a disappointment. Things were going well in November, with average volumes bubbling up to 314,000 barrels per day. But then a fire hit one of the firm's two bitumen upgraders in December, dragging the full-year average down to the low end of the company's target of 290,000 to 305,000 barrels per day. For the year, operating earnings fell by more than half, and return on capital employed collapsed to 2.6%.

Of course, anyone following Suncor for any length of time knows that progress is always a bumpy process. If the oil sands were abundant and easy to extract, well that wouldn't be quite fair, now would it? This is a tough line of work, and Suncor is one of the best in the business, despite its pretty meager 2009 results.

Suncor's long-term objective is to safely grow oil sands capacity 10% to 12% per year through 2020, while reducing its environmental footprint at the same time. The firm clearly has its work cut out for it. Let's see what it's planning for 2010, and how this advances the firm's long-term goals.

In November, the 2010 budget was set at $5.2 billion, with 27% earmarked for growth capital. Atop the growth pile is Firebag Stage 3, an in-situ project whose expansion was put on hold last year. In-situ extraction appears to be one of the key ways to reduce emissions from oil sands operations, so this project seems like a natural one to focus on.

So, too, does Suncor's plan to divest additional assets outside of the oil sands, on top of the recent sale to Noble Energy (NYSE: NBL  ) of the firm's Rockies oil and gas holdings. In that particular case, Suncor may have given up a very interesting position in the Niobrara shale, but such an asset does not play to the company's strengths.

I'm happy to see Suncor so focused on the oil sands. Even after a large merger, the company hasn't lost its bearings. This should bear fruit for shareholders in the years ahead.

Total is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

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

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