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Globe and Mail: Athabasca group targets more expansion

NORVAL SCOTT

The consortium behind Alberta’s Athabasca Oil Sands Project (AOSP) is targeting more expansion stages of the giant facility that could see its production reach around 1 million barrels a day in 15 to 20 years’ time, according to one of the consortium partners.

While the AOSP consortium has yet to evaluate fully whether its resources would support six to seven expansions of the facility, the 1 million b/d – a figure close to what the oil sands as a whole currently produce – is a possibility if all the developments proceed as hoped, said Western Oil Sands Inc.  [WTO-T]CEO Jim Houck.

“That’s a target that the partners would ascribe to, although we still have to do the technical analysis to determine if the potential is there,” he said on the sidelines of the company’s annual general meeting in Calgary.

Western – whose main asset is a 20 per cent stake in the AOSP, which currently produces 155,000 b/d – has been under pressure from shareholder to maximize value, resulting in the firm hiring TD Securities Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. last year to help it find a downstream partner for future Athabasca production.

In February, 2007, those firms’ mandate was widened to seeking a potential takeover.

Mr. Houck wouldn’t comment on whether the company had received any interest from other firms, stating only that the strategic review was “progressing.” He refused to give a timeline for when the review might be completed.

The possible purchase of Western, which currently produces 35,000 b/d and whose market capitalization is around $6-billion, has long been seen as an easy way for either of its larger partners in AOSP, Shell Canada Ltd. and Chevron Corp., to increase their stake in the oil sands.

With Royal Dutch Shell PLC having bought out Shell Canada this year, there has been rampant speculation in Alberta that Western would be the next target on the super major’s list, while the Korea National Oil Corp., a relative newcomer to the oil sands, is also rumoured to be interested in acquiring Western.

Despite the sale talks, Western is stilll seeking a downstream deal as it needs to secure access to a refinery if it is to bring its share of future crude production from the AOSP to market. Western, which is targeting output of more than 200,000 b/d in 15 to 20 years’ time, was reported to have been a bidder earlier this year for Valero Energy Corp.’s 160,000 b/d Lima, Ohio, refinery, but lost out to Husky Energy Inc.

While Western’s current share of AOSP output, as well as that from the 100,000 b/d expansion currently in development, will be processed at Shell Canada’s upgrader, the consortium partners have agreed to go their separate ways with regard to processing crude from any future expansion, meaning Western has to find a way of gaining access to a refinery to avoid being left in the lurch.

Mr. Houck said that Royal Dutch’s takeover of the Canadian subsidiary hadn’t altered the operational relationship between the two firms, noting that Shell Canada’ s senior oil sands employees will remain in their positions.

June 12, 2007 at 7:37 PM EDT

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