Today I awoke to three big announcements out of the oil patch. Just because the year's winding down, doesn't mean the industry's wheeling and dealing is poised to take a breather.

Oil sands oligarchs consolidate their empires
First up, we've got a powerhouse oil sands partnership between Total (NYSE: TOT) and Suncor (NYSE: SU). Each is already a significant force in the area, with Total building out phase two at Surmont and Suncor sporting a track record dating back to the 1960s. Another thing the companies have in common is a stake in the Fort Hills project. The history here is pretty interesting.

In late 2008, the Fort Hills project -- then divided between Petro-Canada, Teck, and UTS Energy -- was in bad shape. Cost overruns met crashing crude prices, and the project was sidelined. Total made a bid for UTS in January 2009, raised its offer in April, and then dropped it when UTS shareholders refused to budge. Finally, this past summer, Total came back with an offer too good to pass up -- at more than double the original bid! Suncor, in the meantime, picked up 60% of the project through its 2009 megamerger with Petro-Canada.

In the partnership announced today, Total is buying further into the Fort Hills project by picking up 19.2% of Suncor's interest. In addition, the new partners are pooling their interests in Suncor's previously sidelined Voyageur project and Total's Joslyn project. Total is paying $1.7 billion in total, primarily as consideration for Suncor's past expenditures at Voyageur.

There's a pretty compelling logic to the pairing. The massive Voyageur project includes an upgrader, which will process bitumen produced at the other two sites. Beyond that bit of synergy, there's the fact that these projects are expensive and tough to get permitted, so the pooling of resources (financial, technical, and otherwise) should help to push each one across the line. The timetable is around five years for both Fort Hills and Voyageur, while Joslyn is expected to come online a year or two later.

This is a landmark deal, and probably the single most significant development in the oil sands this year.

A premium price for a swath of shale
Another significant pairing up in Canada is the agreement by South Africa's Sasol (NYSE: SSL) to pick up half of Talisman Energy's (NYSE: TLM) interest in the Farrell Creek portion of the greater Montney shale gas play for a touch over $1 billion. Sasol, which is also partnered with Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) and Statoil (NYSE: STO) in its own backyard, is paying 25% in cash and the rest in the form of a drilling carry. The company, which is paying over $40,000 an acre(!),is clearly hungry to bulk up on its shale gas expertise. That price tag is one of the highest I've seen in any shale play, and is especially high for a gas play. Even Bakken deals are only going for roughly $10,000 per acre. That's a terrific outcome for Talisman, which I went to bat for over the summer as an overlooked international oil opportunity.

Seeing beyond seismic
Arguably nothing has contributed more to advancements in oil exploration than 3-D seismic technology. Seismic will remain the go-to tool in every geophysicist's toolkit, but there are valuable complements being developed. One of these is controlled source electromagnetics. Basically, seismic is great at identifying structures that indicate potential oil and gas accumulations thousands of feet below the surface, but has a hard time distinguishing between oil and water. Electromagnetics (EM) measures resistivity, which varies significantly between oil- and water-bearing rock.

One of the early adopters of EM, just as with 3-D seismic, is Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A). Today, the company has announced a partnership with EMGS, a leader in the technology, to develop new 3-D EM equipment. Shell says the new data acquisition system should allow it to double the number of prospects it can evaluate. Given the challenges of deepwater exploration -- whether technical or political in nature -- this would be a very welcome advance.