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Soaring Oil Prices Drive Occidental’s Return to Canadian Region

In the case of petroleum trapped in Canadian sand, the second try might be the charm for Occidental Petroleum Corp.

The Los Angeles-based oil giant plunked down $491 million last week for a 15 percent stake in any oil pulled from what might be one of the richest oil reserves in the world the Athabasca deposit in northern Alberta. That’s the same region where Oxy shed its 80 percent stake in 2000.

The Canadian oil sands hold an estimated 8 billion barrels of bitumen, which is a molasses-like petroleum that’s much more costly to extract than regular petroleum. It also costs more to refine.

But with oil prices holding at more than $130 a barrel lately, the oil sands become more enticing.

“As long as oil stays around $100 a barrel, this should be a profitable investment,” said Jim Byrne, an energy analyst at BMO Capital Markets in Canada.

Oxy invested in an area called the Joslyn project, which holds net recoverable reserves of 370 million barrels for Occidental. The project is still in the early stages but more than 1,800 wells have been drilled to confirm the potential, Occidental said.

Occidental plans to invest about $2 billion over the next five years to develop the reserves, and the company predicts it will be producing about 11,000 barrels per day by 2014 with a plateau of up to 31,000 barrels of oil per day. That’s roughly 5 percent of Oxy’s current production.

“This move isn’t going to move the needle very much for Oxy but it’s a sound investment and will give them a foothold in Canada,” said Byrne of BMO.

“This acquisition is consistent with our strategy of focusing on long lived, large resource-in-place projects,” Occidental’s Chairman Ray Irani said in a statement. “This is an outstanding project which will provide a significant supply of oil on the North American continent.”

Calgary-based investment firm Enerplus Resources Fund sold Occidental the stake in the Joslyn project, which it had been shopping since March.

This is Occidental’s second try at tapping into the gigantic oil deposits. It spun off its Canadian assets in April 2000 in a deal that created Nexen Inc.

Last week’s announcement was a welcome development for Paris-based oil titan Total SA as well, which is running the project. Industry experts said Occidental offers its financial muscle as well as its technological know-how in the region.

Likewise, the Joslyn project will give Oxy some exposure to the windfall that could be pulled from the oil sands and adds the opportunity to benefit from Total’s expertise without having to operate the project on its own, Occidental spokesman Richard Kline said.

“Investments in oil sands projects have gained momentum recently, and this investment will benefit Occidental and its shareholders for up to 30 years,” Kline added.

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