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Canadian Natural Resources Limited (NYSE:CNQ)
Q2 2021 Earnings Call
Aug 5, 2021, 11:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good morning. We would like to welcome everyone to the Canadian Natural Resources 2021 Second Quarter Earnings Conference Call and Webcast. [Operator Instructions] Please note that this call is being recorded today, August 5, 2021, at nine a.m. Mountain Time. I would now like to turn the meeting over to your host for today's call, Corey Bieber, Executive Advisor. Please go ahead, sir.

Corey Bieber -- Executive Advisor

Thank you, operator, and good morning, everyone, and welcome to Canadian Natural's Second Quarter 2021 Corporate Update Conference Call. Canadian Natural had another strong quarter financially and operationally. As I commented before, I believe our asset base is unique among our peer group, underpinned by long-life, low-decline assets and complemented by our conventional assets that allow significant flexibility, all of which can generate significant free cash flow. Beyond our robust asset base, there is a corporate strategy that focuses on generating real returns for shareholders and a driven management team and a corporate culture that focuses on being effective and efficient. Over the years, Canadian Natural has clearly demonstrated its robustness, sustainability and the strength of its business plan. For 2021 and beyond, I believe we're one of only a few companies capable of delivering meaningful economic growth, increasing returns to shareholders and reducing absolute debt in a responsible manner. And as both Tim and Mark will discuss, we are pleased to provide additional clarity on how our substantial future free cash flows will be dispersed among our four pillars.

For today's call, Tim McKay, our President, will first provide a corporate update. Then Mark Stainthorpe, our Chief Financial Officer, will then provide an update on our 2021 financial outlook as well as our strong financial position. Tim will then provide a summary prior to opening up for questions. Before we kick off, I'd like to remind you of our forward-looking statements. Of note in our reporting disclosures is that everything will be in Canadian dollars unless otherwise stated, and as well, we report our reserves and production before royalties. I would also suggest you review our comments on non-GAAP disclosures. So with that, I'll turn it over to you, Tim.

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

Thank you, Corey. Good morning, everyone. Canadian Natural delivered strong operational results in the second quarter as we achieved quarterly production of approximately 1.142 million BOEs per day. As a result of our long-life, robust, low-decline assets, operational excellence and with our capital discipline, generated significant free cash flow. We balanced free cash flow to our four pillars of capital allocation, maximizing value for our shareholders. In the first two quarters of 2021, we have reduced net debt by $3.1 billion, returned approximately $1.3 billion to our shareholders through dividends and share repurchases, maintained capital discipline, executed on opportunistic transactions which will add long-term value. The strengths of Canadian Natural's business model are also applied to environmental, social and governance to deliver industry-leading performance across the board, a significant factor in our long-term sustainability. For the period from 2016 to 2020, in our oil sands operation, our GHG intensity is down 38%. North American E&P methane emissions are down 28%.

And currently in this time, we have taken equivalent to over one million cars off the road annually. And over and above, we are the leading capturer and sequester of CO2 in the oil and gas sector worldwide. Our safety record is top tier, as corporate total recordable industry frequency improved to 0.0 -- to 0.21 in 2020, a reduction of 58% from 2016 level. In June, we announced the Oil Sands Pathway to Net Zero Initiative, an alliance of oil sand industry participants who have a goal of achieving net zero emissions in the oil sands operations by 2050. This is an important initiative in the oil sands industry participants, and Canadian Natural will further strengthen our leading ESG performance while delivering meaningful emission reductions and balancing sustainable economic development. It will require collaboration with the federal and Alberta governments, so that together, we can help achieve Canada's climate goals. With the positive outlook for commodity prices for 2021, we have increased our annual capital budget by $275 million. The breakdown is as follows. Our conventional and unconventional budget has increased by $120 million, primarily for additional drilling of 78 wells and development activities, with a targeted capital efficiency of approximately $8,400 per flowing BOE and giving us the 2021 exit rate of approximately 14,000 BOEs per day. $110 million is related to long-life, low-decline assets, of which $75 million primarily relates to the additional scope completed and the extended turnaround time to complete the Horizon turnaround in the second quarter. $35 million of the $110 million is for construction of three pads at Primrose, two at Kirby North and two at Kirby South, which will support production additions in 2022 and beyond.

Our area-based abandonment program has been highly cost effective, and as a result, we have added an additional $45 million to our 2021 capital budget and target to do an additional 800 well abandonments as we continue to prudently manage our liabilities and environmental footprint. All of these additional expenditures will result in an estimated increase of about 1,500 jobs across Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Moving to the assets and starting with natural gas. Overall, Q2 production was 1.614 Bcf per day, an increase from our Q1 production of 1.598 Bcf per day, with North American Q2 natural gas production of 1.591 Bcf, up from Q1 of 1.585, even though Pine River, approximately 100 million today, was down for the full quarter. As of July 24, the plant resumed operation and is currently producing approximately 100 million a day. We continue to focus on operational excellence. And in our Q2, North American natural gas operating costs was strong at $1.15 versus Q1 of $1.24 per Mcf. At Septimus, a five net well pad came on stream in June as budgeted, with total current rates limited to approximately 30 million a day of natural gas. It had a strong capital efficiency of approximately $5,000 per flowing BOE. Septimus is now at full capacity at approximately 150 million a day of natural gas and 9,000 barrels a day of liquids and targets to remain at full capacity for the remainder of 2021.

At Townsend, a six well pad came on stream in June on time and cost, with total rates of approximately 55 million cubic feet of natural gas, with strong capital efficiencies of approximately $4,000 per flowing BOE. Production at Townsend of approximately 265 million cubic feet of natural gas was achieved in the second quarter and remains on target to exit 2021 at a production rate of approximately 340 million cubic feet per day. Looking to the second half of 2021, AECO strip prices continues to look strong at over $3.50 per GJ, improving the economics of our natural gas projects, adding more value to our natural gas production as we revised our target natural gas guidance up to 1.68 Bcf per day to 1.72 Bcf and targeted exit 2021 in excess of 1.8 Bcf per day. Our Q2 North American light oil and NGL production was 98,559 barrels per day, up 6% from Q1 2021, primarily as a result of the company's drilling and development activities. Q2 operating costs decreased to $14.39 per barrel versus Q1 operating costs of $16.07 per barrel.

The company continues to advance its high-value Montney light crude oil development at Wembley, where 13 net wells have been drilled to date ahead of schedule, under cost of the budgeted 18 net wells targeted to be onstream in 2021. Cost efficiencies have been realized on the Wembley drilling program, and targeting costs are 12% lower than budgeted levels, resulting in strong capital efficiencies of approximately $8,300 per flowing BOE once onstream. Construction of the new crude oil battery and gathering system has been top tier and is approximately 45 days ahead of schedule and are now targeted to be onstream in mid-August, with costs targeted to be under budget by 11%. This project is targeted to exit 2021 with total production rates of approximately 8,500 barrels a day of liquids and 30 million cubic feet of natural gas. The international E&P crude oil production averaged 32,697 barrels per day in Q2 of 2021, a decrease of 26% from Q2 '20 levels and a 3% increase from Q1 2021 levels. The changes in production from prior period is primarily a result of planned maintenance activities, natural field declines and the permanent shut-in of the Banff and Kyle fields in 2020.

Crude oil operating costs increased from prior periods, primarily due to lower volumes and as a result of planned maintenance activities in the North Sea and Offshore Africa as well as increased GHG and energy costs in the North Sea. Q2 heavy oil production was up to approximately 66,000 barrels a day versus the 62,700 -- approximately 62,700 barrels a day in Q1, primarily as a result of the company's drilling and to a lesser extent, increased development activities related to higher prices in the quarter. In situ operating costs increased to $19.32 per barrel from Q1 operating costs of $18.89 per barrel. At the company's Clearwater play at Smith, six net horizontal multilaterals are now on stream. Production from these wells continues to be strong, currently totaling approximately 2,200 barrels per day, exceeding budgeted rates by 600 barrels per day. As part of our additional capital, the company is targeting to drill 70 additional heavy oil wells, which includes another pad of six net horizontal multi-well laterals at Smith and will be drilled and come on stream in Q4. This pad is also targeting strong productive rates of approximately 2,000 barrels a day. A key component of our long-life, low-decline assets is our world-class Pelican pool, where our leading-edge polymer flood continues to deliver significant value.

Second quarter production was 55,212 barrels per day comparable to the first quarter of approximately 55,500, primarily as a result of well drilling program activities in the quarter, offset by natural field declines. Operating costs continue to be very strong at $6.90 per barrel versus Q1 operating costs of $7.38 per barrel. During the quarter, the company brought on stream 10 net wells, which has a current production capacity of approximately 1,300 barrels a day and low capital efficiencies of $9,900 per flowing BOE. Our team at Pelican continues to drive operational excellence. And with our low decline and very low operating costs, Pelican Lake continues to have excellent netbacks. Our second quarter thermal production was 258,551 barrels a day, down 3% from Q1. Operating costs in Q2 were 3% higher at $11.78 per barrel versus Q1 operating costs of $11.40 per -- primarily due to lower volumes in the quarter. At Primrose, the steam flood area, a solvent injection pilot is on track to commence in Q4 '21.

And similar to the first pilot at Kirby South, this is targeted to operate for a 2-year period. At oil sands mining operations, we had a strong second quarter with production of 361,707 barrels per day, inclusive of the planned maintenance at Horizon and Scotford in the quarter, with strong operating costs of $25.46 per barrel of SCO. Our teams continue to leverage technical expertise between the two sites, services, operating efficiencies, driving our costs down with consistency. The company's focus on continuous improvement initiatives delivered high utilization and reliability at the company's Oil Sands Mining and Upgrading assets. As a result, a record monthly SCO production of approximately 495,100 barrels a day was achieved in June '21, an increase from the previous record of approximately 490,800 barrels a day of SCO in December 2020. I will now turn it over to Mark for a financial review.

Mark A. Stainthorpe -- Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President of Finance

Thanks, Tim, and good morning, everyone. The second quarter was a strong operational and financially, delivering net earnings of $1.55 billion, significant adjusted funds flow of $3.05 billion and free cash flow of approximately $1.5 billion after capital and dividends in the quarter, excluding acquisitions. As a result of the significant free cash flow generation, our net debt balance at Q2 '21 of $18.2 billion is down $3.1 billion from the end of 2020, and the net debt reduction from Q1 '21 was approximately $1.7 billion. This debt reduction includes the full repayment and cancellation of our Devon acquisition term facility of $2.125 billion in the quarter. We have also exercised the par call option on our bonds due in November to repay early in August, resulting in interest cost savings and further absolute debt reduction. Additionally, up to August 4, we have returned over $1.5 billion to shareholders in 2021 by way of our dividend that was increased in Q1 and through share repurchases. Our long-life, low-decline assets support a sustainable, growing and predictable dividend. This was evident through the period of challenging commodity prices in 2020, where we increased and maintained our dividend with a further increase in March of 2021, marking the 21st year of dividend increases.

We continue to maintain significant liquidity, including revolving bank facilities, cash and short-term investments. Liquidity at Q2 '21 was approximately $5.6 billion. We had approximately $680 million in commercial paper for which we reserved capacity under our revolving facilities. Free cash flow generation in 2021, defined as adjusted funds flow less budgeted capital and dividends, is targeted to be substantial. And using an annual average WTI of approximately USD66 a barrel, free cash flow is targeted to range between $7.2 billion to $7.7 billion. As a result of this strong free cash flow and increasing balance sheet strength through 2021, the Board of Directors has revised our share repurchase policy effective July 1, 2021, and authorized management to increase returns to shareholders through incremental share repurchases of approximately 1% of shares outstanding or approximately 11 million shares per quarter.

Additionally, the new policy provides that once the company reaches an absolute debt level of $15 billion, currently targeted to occur in Q4 of '21, 50% of free cash flow is targeted to be allocated to share repurchases, with the remaining 50% allocated to further strengthening the company's balance sheet. This provides balance to our four pillars of capital allocation with increased returns to shareholders, further debt reductions, the ability to provide economic resource development and execute on opportunistic acquisitions. This clearly demonstrates the sustainability of our business model, the ability of our unique long-life, low-decline asset base with low maintenance capital requirements and effective and efficient operations to generate significant free cash flow. With that, I'll turn it back to you, Tim.

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

Thank you, Mark. Canadian Natural's ability to deliver significant sustainable cash flow is driven by our effective and efficient operations, our high-quality, long-life, low-decline assets that have low maintenance capital and significant reserves. Canadian Natural's advantage is our ability to effectively allocate cash flow to our four pillars. We balanced our commodities in Q2 '21 with approximately 43% of our BOEs light crude oil SCO, 34% heavy and 23% natural gas, which gives us exposure to all improving commodity prices. And we have increased our annual production guidance target to 1.220 million BOEs to 1.267 million BOEs per day. We will continue to allocate cash flow to our four pillars in a disciplined manner, maximizing value for our shareholders, which is all driven by effective capital allocation, effective and efficient operations and by our teams who deliver top-tier results. In March, our dividend has increased by 11%, and we have 21 years of consecutive dividend increases at a CAGR of 20% during that time.

Effective July 1, 2020, the Board has authorized management to repurchase 1% of the common outstanding shares per quarter. And then once net debt is below $15 billion, allocate free cash flow, defined as adjusted fund flows less budgeted capital and dividends, 50% to repurchasing shares and 50% to strengthening our balance sheet. As we have achieved our interim environmental targets, we have set new targets: by 2030, reduce methane emissions by 50% from 2016 baseline; by 2026, reduce in situ freshwater and mining freshwater river water usage intensity by 40% from our 2017 baseline. As well with our oil sands pathway to net zero initiative, we will work with our industry partners to advance key milestones as we work toward our goal of net zero in the oil sands by 2050. In summary, we continue to focus on safe, reliable operations, reducing our environmental footprint, enhancing our top-tier operations. Canadian Natural is delivering top-tier cash flow generation. We are unique, sustainable, robust and clearly demonstrate the ability to deliver returns to our shareholders by balancing our four pillars. That concludes our Q2 call. I will now open the line for questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Your first question is from Greg Pardy with RBC Capital Markets.

Greg M. Pardy -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Thanks. Good morning. Couple of questions for you. The first one is just on Horizon ASOP. I'm just wondering how anomalous was the 495,000 barrels a day in June? And -- or is that something that is setting up more of an achievable number on a sustained basis? Just curious there.

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

Yes. That's exactly what it's doing for us, Greg. In the last kind of six months here, you've seen continuous improvement from the 491,000 roughly to the 495,000. And that's exactly what it's all about. It's about little increments that we're doing on site -- on the two sites to improve our reliability, improve -- enhance our predictability on our production. And so there, you can -- over a long period of time, you -- the goal is to get closer and closer to those numbers on a sustainable basis.

Greg M. Pardy -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Okay. And does that have much bearing now on your operating costs? Or is this something where it will allow you to absorb either higher gas prices or higher power prices?

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

Yes. Operationally, those incremental barrels are very, very, very low in terms of cost efficiencies. So yes, it will help absorb some of the cost of fuel and some of the commodity inflations we're seeing with various labor and steel and such. So yes, it actually just helps mitigate that and drive those costs continually down in the oil sands.

Greg M. Pardy -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Okay. Terrific. And last one from me is you made changes with the North West Upgrader site. We understand the financial bearing and so forth. But what's happening there operationally? It's -- you've got an equity interest. We hear about it frequently, but we don't really have a good view as to what's going on. Are you guys becoming more operationally involved at the North West Upgrader?

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

Yes, I would say that's correct. So what we've done is we've seconded one of our operational persons from Horizon, who is very capable at help that operation to become more reliable, get higher utilization. And obviously, it will take some time. But yes, we have seconded a Canadian Natural person into that role, and we're going to help that operation improve, which we expect over time will generate some cash.

Greg M. Pardy -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Okay. Terrific.

Operator

Our next question is from Neil Mehta with Goldman Sachs.

Neil Singhvi Mehta -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

Good morning guys. A lot of cash in the guidance here this morning. Good to see. So couple of questions related to that. The first one is capital spending, as you guys picked up that level this year on the back of some financing that came through. Any early flavors around 2022? Should we be thinking in that $3.5 billion to $4 billion fairway? Or do you think that there's upside or downside to that number? And then I had a follow-up question around the dividend

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

Yes. It's too early. We traditionally do our capital budget here in the fall, where we rank all the different commodities and then look at what the forward pricing at that time and try and be prudent with our capital budget. So it's too early to say. I mean, if you go back in time, when we started 2021, our capital budget was based on USD45 WTI and CAD2.50. So the little bit of increase in capital spending to me is just an opportunistic opportunity here just to tether in some additional capital. It keeps some of the activities that we're doing very well, going here more efficiently. So to me, it's just too early to say on that.

Neil Singhvi Mehta -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

And your view of sustaining capex, again, just remind us, Tim, where do you think the level is to keep production flat?

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

So it's in that $3 billion to $3.5 billion. Always depends on the types of activities we do in that year. This year, it was $3 billion. And so to me, it's just generally in that range.

Neil Singhvi Mehta -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

Okay, OK. The follow-up is just around the dividend. As you said, you have a long track record of raising it. Any thoughts given the amount of cash in the model in the back half of the year of doing another dividend raise later this year? And just thoughts on the dividend growth profile on a go-forward basis.

Mark A. Stainthorpe -- Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President of Finance

Neil, it's Mark. Thanks for the question. It's -- the dividend, as you mentioned, has increased twenty one straight years. It's been growing, and it's predictable. And the Board has typically always raised that and done it in the March time frame. As you see the free cash flow in 2021 and going into 2022, it's significant. So there'll be plenty of opportunity for the Board to look at that and continue that growing dividend strategy. The free cash flow allocation policy that's come out here is really because that debt repayment has accelerated so much in 2021. The $15 billion target in Q4 comes fast. So I think that the additional returns to shareholders just gives more balance to the capital allocation of our four pillars going through the rest of the year here. So I think that dividend gets revisited at our regular time in that predictable period.

Neil Singhvi Mehta -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

Okay. Perfect. Thanks guys.

Operator

Your next question is from Manav Gupta with Credit Suisse.

Manav Gupta -- Credit Suisse AG -- Analyst

Hey guys. First of all, you always have a very informed view on apportionments, egress capacity as it relates to Line 3, where the inventories are and what your near-term outlook for differentials is. If you could give us some of those details.

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

Sure. If you look at today, apportionment is high, record highs actually at around 52%, 54%. There is some maintenance being done on the Line 3. But obviously, every barrel is flowing. The inventory levels in Alberta have been pretty steady at the 35% range. So -- and then, of course, the differentials have been extremely strong at less than 20% of WTI. So we look going ahead with the view that Line three will come on in Q4, give us that extra capacity. And as TMX continues to progress in 2023, we don't expect that line to come on as well. So we're very positive today here that things are moving in the right direction.

Manav Gupta -- Credit Suisse AG -- Analyst

Okay. And a quick clarification here, sir. The revised guidance of discretionary, that is post-dividend cash flow, went from $5.7 billion, $6.2 billion to $7.2 billion, $7.7 billion. Besides the change in oil price stack, was there anything else which drove the increase, cost production? Or it was as simple as change in price stack?

Mark A. Stainthorpe -- Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President of Finance

No, it's mostly the change in price stack as well as continued reliable operations targeted for the rest of the year.

Manav Gupta -- Credit Suisse AG -- Analyst

Thank you for that [Indecipherable] and thank you for taking my questions.

Operator

Your next question is from Roger Read with Wells Fargo.

Roger David Read -- Wells Fargo Securities, LLC -- Analyst

Good morning. Just would like to follow up a little bit on some of the, I guess, let's call them medium to longer-term goals on the emissions reductions. When do you think the capex gets spent on those? Or is it already happening? Is it going to be parceled out kind of on a ratable basis to the various years of targets? And then the other part of that question is, what do you think some of the ancillary benefits are in terms of improved operations, improved returns, overall better cash flows? Like just trying to think about it as something other than a regulatory-driven event. What are some of the other upside opportunities there?

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

Yes. It's early to say. We've only really started at the high level conceptual basis on the trunk line and the sites that are going in. Our teams have evaluated different technologies in terms of what we think is the most cost efficient in terms of reducing our CO2 on sites. So right now, it's very early in the process. We've got to do a lot of engineering work. We have to basically, on the engineering side, come up with the appropriate cost estimates. So to me, it's just too early to -- there. I mean, the real benefit at the end of the day is what we're looking to do is to be net zero in the oil sands by 2050. And to me, it's just we got to step through it. And as we've talked about, as we move through the process, we'll come up with milestones and give more clarity on cash, costs and how they allocate between the different partners of the initiatives. So it's just really too early to have that economic model to today.

Roger David Read -- Wells Fargo Securities, LLC -- Analyst

Well, no, I appreciate that on the oil sands side. I was really thinking more about the targets to 2030, the reduction in methane, the decrease in freshwater usage. I appreciate 2050. I'm pretty sure I won't be here holding you to account then anyway.

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

Yes, yes. So on the methane reductions, you know what, the teams, our field operations teams have done a fabulous job in the field. We're using some of the latest technologies in terms of identifying leaks and opportunities of fugitive emissions to reduce it. So actually, yes, in the end, we'll see more benefit because more natural gas will be sold. Obviously, some of the sites that we feel we can consolidate economically and get that benefit. So yes, there's actually some -- there is economic benefit to those. And the freshwater is the same. Obviously, the more water we recycle, it will be less energy and more efficient on the operations. And so that's what the goals of the teams, and they're working to progress those opportunities. But they're all very economic and very complementary to our operating costs.

Roger David Read -- Wells Fargo Securities, LLC -- Analyst

Okay great. Thank you.

Operator

Your next question is from Menno Hulshof with TD Securities.

Menno Hulshof -- TD Securities Equity Research -- Analyst

Good morning everyone. I just have one on shareholder returns. You're clearly committed to a 50% free cash flow allocation of buybacks once the $15 billion of debt is achieved. And that obviously precludes a variable and special dividends, which are getting quite a bit of play in the U.S. Can you just remind us of how you think about the different shareholder return mechanisms philosophically? And whether variable or special dividends could ever become a part of the conversation? Or is that just too much of a stretch?

Mark A. Stainthorpe -- Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President of Finance

Yes. I think, Menno, when we look at the asset base and the long-life, low-decline predictable cash flow, it really supports that sustainable growing year-after-year type of dividend. So that today has been the focus. Of course, dividends and these allocations, returns to shareholders are Board decisions. But that's really how we see the dividend. It just fits -- the way we've gone about it fits really well with our asset base. And with returns to shareholders through share buybacks gives us an opportunity to return more value as we generate growing free cash flow.

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

And if you look at 2020, I mean, we were one of very few companies that grew our dividend and maintained the balance sheet. So the assets are very amenable to a predictable growing dividend.

Menno Hulshof -- TD Securities Equity Research -- Analyst

Perfect. Thanks a lot.

Operator

There are no further questions. I'll turn the call back to Mr. Bieber.

Corey Bieber -- Executive Advisor

Thank you very much, operator. And -- sorry, thank you very much, operator, and thank you to those who joined us today on the call. If you do have any questions, please don't hesitate to give us a follow-up. Thank you, and goodbye.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Duration: 39 minutes

Call participants:

Corey Bieber -- Executive Advisor

Timothy Shawn McKay -- President and Director

Mark A. Stainthorpe -- Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President of Finance

Greg M. Pardy -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Neil Singhvi Mehta -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

Manav Gupta -- Credit Suisse AG -- Analyst

Roger David Read -- Wells Fargo Securities, LLC -- Analyst

Menno Hulshof -- TD Securities Equity Research -- Analyst

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