Suncor Energy Inc. (NYSE:SU) Barclays CEO Energy-Power Conference 2019 September 4, 2019 9:05 AM ET
Mark Little - President & Chief Executive Officer
Conference Call Participants
Tim Kitchen - Barclays
Well, good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Tim Kitchen with Barclays and very pleased to welcome our next presenting company Suncor Energy. It's Canada's largest integrated producer by any measure. Pleased to have with us Mark Little, President and CEO. So, Mark over to you.
Great. Thanks, Tim. Well, thank you, and good morning, everybody. It's great to be here in New York and taking part in this important annual conference. Suncor has attended this event for a number of years and as the new President and CEO, I'm very glad to be here.
Before I dive into the focus of my discussion, I wanted to provide a quick primer to Suncor for those who may not be familiar with us. We are, as Tim mentioned, Canada's leading integrated energy company and a supplier of energy that reliably generates cash flow and is a leader in ESG. The vast majority of this energy comes from long-life low-decline oil sands. The midpoint of our guidance this year is 800,000 barrels a day with 100% weighting on oil.
We have a uniquely integrated high-quality portfolio of assets, which includes our long-life low-decline oil sands; mining and in-situ assets, and our upgrading; our exploration and production operations offshore on the East Coast of Canada, as well as the North Sea; a midstream and marketing business, which connects our upstream production with our industry-leading refining business, located in both Canada and the United States; and investments in renewable energy that includes wind power as well as owning and operating Canada's largest ethanol facility; and a leading retail marketing business with our Petro-Canada brand and service stations comprising about 20% of the retail market in Canada.
A key takeaway for any investor is that at our core, we're an oil sands business. The nature and location of this resource comes with increased complexity, so we have strategically structured and integrated our business. This enables us to mitigate risk and capture the entire resource value, resulting in higher value per barrel and lower cash flow volatility. And as a result, we can reliably generate cash in most market scenarios evidenced by a long history of strong shareholder returns.
Change and resilience are a big part of what I want to talk about today. We're living in an area of transformation for our world for our industry and for our company. Energy is the lifeblood of modern society. It heats and powers our homes, schools and hospitals. It enables mobility. It offers meaningful jobs and provides governments with revenues to help fund critical services and infrastructure and helps feed a growing population.
Reliable and affordable energy is critical to our quality of life. In fact, it's critical to life expectancy. Consider the many advancements that have increased the average human life expectancy by 25% since I was born. It's incredible. And this would not have occurred without availability of reliable and affordable energy. With a global population expected to increase by 2 billion people in the next two decades and hundreds of millions more coming out of poverty, global energy demand will continue to grow significantly.
Every credible forecast points to oil continuing to have a sizable role in the future global energy portfolio, but to meet growing global demand we need to responsibly harness all forms of energy. There are those that believe we need to eliminate fossil fuel consumption and that energy companies that do not see climate change as a global priority or threat. Suncor's position, a position we've publicly stated for many years, is that climate change is real and a pressing global challenge. We all have an obligation to reduce our carbon footprints by addressing our energy use and its associated emissions, providing the energy for the world, while dealing with climate, is an enormous global challenge.
The focus of my remarks today will be on how Canada, the oil sands and, specifically, Suncor, in particular, are positioned to be a responsible supplier of the energy the world continues to demand and as a result a high quality long-term energy investment for your portfolio. Here's why I'm confident that Suncor's value creation will continue on for decades to come.
Our exceptional resource base and integrated business model allows us to reliably and profitably develop the resource for the benefit of shareholders and other stakeholders in most market cycles. Our long-term investment horizon and focus on a sustainable business model enables us to grow free cash flow from our low decline multi-decade resource base. Technology and innovation, a critical part of our DNA as a company, have made us more competitive, setting Suncor up for a long-term success in an environment where the investment community is becoming ever more cost and ESG-focused. And while oil sands exist in several locations around the globe, the deposits in Northern Alberta are the largest and most technologically advanced in terms of production.
Unlike conventional oil fields, which peak early and then decline, Canada's oil sands are a well-defined reservoir, containing a century or more of potential production. Developing the oil sands is more akin to a manufacturing enterprise than a traditional exploration and production business. Our oil sands exploration risk and costs are essentially zero. We only spend about 30% to 40% of our annual cash operating cost to sustain our business, whereas in conventional oil and gas, the development -- this number is significantly higher. Because reserves replacement is not a concern, we've been able to concentrate on reducing costs and increasing the reliability and the productivity, while continuously improving the environmental performance and social performance.
Having at our core -- our core resource in one geographic location is noteworthy. During this decade, we had made great strides in improving reliability and reducing operating costs at our base plant, which have decreased from $36 a barrel in 2008 to less than $20 a barrel in 2018. This represents a reduction of more than 45%, and bear in mind, these cost reductions have been realized over a time frame spanning a full economic cycle. This highlights the consistency and resiliency of our operations and capital deployment strategy. And we're not done, we're working hard to be able to drive our costs even lower targeting US$15 a barrel.
A key driver of our success to date was the construction of a pipeline from our Firebag in situ facility to our upgrader, which has provided greater feedstock flexibility. We expect similar step change in performance, as we build an essential pipeline link between Syncrude asset and our base plant in 2020. We are confident that by working with our partners we can reduce our operating cash costs at Syncrude to US$22.50 a barrel or CAD 30.
Location and quality differentials will always present volatility in realized prices given the resources land lot and the bitumen requires more upgrading and refining. With this in mind, we've successfully developed our core resource through a tightly and physically integrated business model. This way we can leverage our upstream oil sands operations, with our upgrading refining and marketing assets, to be able to capture the full value chain of our upstream production.
Integration mitigates location and quality differentials that have affected other oil sands producers in the Canadian market. We believe our integrated business model and deep understanding of bitumen value gives us a significant competitive advantage within our industry. For example, the strength of our company was evident in 2018 when Canadian -- Canada's oil sector faced widening differentials and Suncor underwent the largest maintenance program in its entire history. Despite this, we continued to grow production by 7% and generated a record CAD 10.2 billion of funds from operations and we returned CAD 5.4 billion or more than 50% of our cash flow to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks.
In response to widening oil differentials, the Alberta government implemented mandatory industry-wide production curtailments or quotas through -- in 2019 through 2020. Through this we've illustrated our resiliency and our strategy by operating our assets safely, reliably and profitably. With a regional base and asset flexibility, we've been able to transfer production quotas amongst our oil sands assets to maximize value. As a result, we set a new second quarter record for both total upstream production and funds from operations generating CAD 3 billion of cash flow and demonstrating once again that we can create substantial value for shareholders in most market conditions.
Operational excellence, capital discipline, our integrated business model, and our long-standing focus on sustainability have been central to our focus and our success. We understand that the environmental and economic dimensions of energy are deeply intertwined. From our perspective, success in one area should not come without success in the others. In July, we built on 25 years or a quarter century of sustainability disclosure releasing our latest report on sustainability.
We also released our third annual Climate Risk and Resilience Report, providing disclosure on why we believe our business strategies are resilient and we will continue to deliver value in a carbon-constrained world. We know transparency and disclosure are important for our investors. We also believe that we can help differentiate Canadian energy for what it is, some of the most responsible and trusted energy in the world. Our ambitions are reflected in our sustainability goal of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions intensity of our oil and petroleum products by 30% by 2030. We've already made great strides by reducing 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions intensity of our operations since 2014 and we will continue to keep this momentum going.
A part of the intensity reduction to date is result of a technology employed at our Fort Hills operation, which came on stream in 2018. This asset employs a secondary extraction process and technology that results in barrels that have the same greenhouse gas emissions intensity as the average barrels run in the United States refining circuit. We do this by extracting carbon from the barrel and putting it back into the ground before it becomes a gas. And from what I understand, there is no other jurisdiction on the surface of the earth where in the upstream we're altering the carbon content of the barrel.
We are investing in next-generation in situ technologies using solvents and waterless extraction methods. These technologies have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas as part of the production phase by up to 70%. These advances are not decades away. They're already on the horizon and they're being piloted commercially. In addition, we believe that these technologies can also reduce our operating and capital costs by as much as 20%.
Technology and innovation will continue to be critical in achieving our environmental, operational and financial goals. Companies that fail to embed technology in their business will struggle to be competitive. We have an extensive history of innovation and technology, including moving from bucket wheel to truck and shovel, implementing in situ projects and advancing tailings technologies.
More recently, we've stepped into the digital world through the deployment of autonomous haul systems, robotics, artificial intelligence and remote sensing technologies. This phase of our company's evolution, which I refer to as Suncor 4.0 is about creating a corporate strategy to not only continue to leverage our existing strengths, but also to unleash the full potential of our workforce by harnessing emerging technologies and new digital capabilities. This work is necessary to grow our competitive advantage and achieve half of the projected $2 billion increase in free funds flow by 2023.
In 2018 alone, we invested $635 million in technology developments and deployment, driving progressive solutions throughout our business, including implementing a new tailings treatment process that's accelerating our reclamation efforts and addressing one of the biggest sustainability challenges, while at the same time driving down the overall cost of reclamation. In 2018, we treated 165% of our mature fine tails production. This is the first time in our 50-year history where we've treated more mature fine tails than we produced in a year.
Opening of $145 million water technology development center where Suncor and our partners can simultaneously evaluate multiple water technologies sharing risks and the costs of development, and a significant focus on harnessing digital technologies, such as improved data analytics, artificial intelligence and automation, making our operations and workplace more reliable, efficient, connected and cost-efficient.
Much of the industry's technology advancement and performance improvements can be attributed to an unprecedented level of collaboration. Through the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance or COSIA, Suncor and several of our peers share proprietary research and development findings in an effort to accelerate improvement in environmental performance.
Again, I would point out that, there's simply no other collaboration like it anywhere in the world. Through this model, I believe its well worth emulating, we can work together better and improve our environmental performance. In addition to environmental performance goals, Suncor's other key long-term sustainability goal is working collaboratively with Canada's indigenous peoples to partner with them in the benefits and opportunities resource development. This is another area I'm personally passionate about.
Our partnership with Fort McKay First Nations and Mikisew Cree First Nations on the East Tank Farm is a good example. This is a key hub for our Fort Hills operations. These two First Nations acquired a 49% equity ownership in the East Tank Farm at a value of approximately $500 million the largest First Nation's business investment to-date in Canada. This investment will annually generate them over CAD 20 million that they're using to invest in everything from infrastructure, elder care education, to grow their economic and social well-being.
The three pillars of Suncor have been and continue to be environmental, social and financial performance. To drive and maintain a sustainable business in every sense of the word, success in each facet ensures Suncor remains economically robust and resilient for decades to come.
Typically, being a low-cost producer is a critical for any commodity business. And contrary to some popular thought, our integrated oil sands business given the cost reductions I've already mentioned has become a reliable generator of cash flow through the commodity life cycle. Part of this goes back to the long-life low-decline nature of the business itself and the resource base.
Yes, a project like Fort Hills requires significant upfront capital investment. But once operational, Fort Hills has an expected 50-year life span. It's a reliable source of low-risk high-return production with minimal decline.
Beyond the resource space execution matters, and as many of you know, Suncor has been on a multi-year journey towards operational excellence with a relentless focus on safety, reliability, cost management and capital discipline. Our approach is straightforward, do not spend a dollar unless it's absolutely going to drive value.
By remaining disciplined in our capital allocation, improving reliability and steadily taking costs out of our business, we've created a strong balance sheet that in and of itself is a distinct competitive advantage. We continue to generate funds from operations to cover our sustaining capital and our dividend at a WTI price of US$45 a barrel, and this level of sustainability is highly competitive on a global scale.
Our prudent approach to cost, debt management, integration serves us well during a significant oil price decline five years ago, when many predicted high-cost heavy oil producers would be the first to fall away. During this challenging period, Suncor consistently outperformed our peer group, while many competitors retreated or withdrew. We grew production, reduced cost and increased returns to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks.
Over the past seven years, Suncor has increased its annual dividend by approximately 20% per year and has bought back more than $10 billion worth of our stock. In recent years, our return on capital employed has increased significantly comparing favorably to our peers as a result of the same focused and disciplined strategy. That kind of resilience and performance doesn't simply happen by chance.
Suncor made strategic decisions many years ago to invest in value-added upgrading and refining capacity in Alberta. We also invested in maintaining pipeline capacity for all our production including Fort Hills.
With large capital projects behind us, we're planning to profitably grow -- profitable growth at a low capital cost in the medium-term. While many long-term production growth opportunities exist in our portfolio, our current focus is on increasing cash flow by generating returns from existing assets without significant production growth.
I mentioned earlier we're working to incrementally grow our cash flow -- annual cash flow by an additional $2 billion by the time you get to 2023. Achieving this target would represent a 20% increase in our cash flow versus 2018. Approximately half of that is coming from technology and the other half from high return margin improvement projects as well as OpEx and sustaining capital savings.
Most of these projects are independent of crude oil conditions or egress challenges. For example, expanding the deployment of our cogeneration power. This project reaching a decision later this year replaces greenhouse gas intensive coke-fired boilers with a natural gas-fired co-gen at our base plant. Not only will this reduce emissions and reduce the costs at our base operations, it also allows us to export lower carbon energy to the Alberta electricity grid. This helps reduce higher carbon intensity coal based power in the province of Alberta while providing security of supply in an environment of growing demand.
Longer term, beyond 2024, we see the potential for significant production growth with a number of in situ projects. However before we proceed, we need greater certainty on pipelines and market access. We believe improved market access needs to be a priority not just because of the economic and social benefits that all Canadians would reap through jobs and royalties and taxes, but by also getting full value for their resources.
We believe Canada with its commitment to environmental performance and social well-being and as one of only two democratic nations on the surface of this earth with vast oil resources is firmly positioned to lead by -- in delivering the energy the world needs in a responsible and sustainable way.
In a time of growing global demand, the energy challenge of the 21st century is not about limiting our energy options but expanding them. It's about looking at all existing and emerging energy resources and learning how to develop and use them more wisely, efficiently and sustainably.
Canada, the oil sands and Suncor have a pivotal role to play and responsibly producing the energy the world needs while moving towards a low-carbon economy. Suncor is an investment in our shared energy future that's sound secure, sustainable and profitable.
Our integrated oil sands model is deliberately structured to not only sustain but to thrive in times of volatility. We have demonstrated our ability throughout the last decade and the full economic cycle to consistently deliver shareholder returns while maintaining a strong balance sheet. This business model would enable us to return more than 50% of our operating cash flow to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks in 2018.
While the markets may be volatile, our strategy is unwavering, our asset base is multi-decade and as such our focus on capital discipline, operational excellence and financial pragmatism all run in parallel and must continue. With this strategy, we continue to generate incremental cash flow, grow dividends and buy back stock and invest in our business to ensure Suncor will remain prosperous.
Thank you for your time today and I'll take your questions.
Well, thank you very much, Mark. Certainly would -- happy to take some questions.
Q - Tim Kitchen
Well, maybe, I'll -- actually we've got one right here, if you could just wait for the mic please?
So we've seen an environment where the stock price is very low, but you obviously have a lot of cash generation. You've put in a buyback authorization. How do you think about that amount and whether it should be higher or not?
Yeah, hi. So what we've done is we've set -- the way, we sustain the business we pay our dividends and then after that we basically take whatever cash is available but just a lot and decide how much we're going to invest in growth opportunities and the rest of it goes to share buybacks. So we tend to set up the company for the year start executing. If the price is down, we buy back a little less. If the price is up, we can strengthen the balance sheet by a little bit more. So we look at that on a continual basis.
Last year we said we'd buy back $2 billion worth of stock. As the cash generation was up, we ended up buying back $3 billion. So I think there's an opportunity for us to potentially buy back more stock this year and now is a great time to be buying. So we're going through the process now of trying to assess. If we think, we'll have excess cash. And that's something that we'll be talking about at the end of the third quarter for sure.
There's one just on the aisle there. Thanks.
Mark, I was just wondering if you've had time at this point to provide some clarity around the second half of your cost reduction initiative in terms of timing and so on.
So, I think some of that, we've been clear on like the US$15 a barrel and when you start to get to CAD 30 or $22.50 at Syncrude. That $22.50 at Syncrude is really a target that we have for the end of next year. Now we won't average that through the year because the pipeline interconnect is a little bit later. But we think we'll have all of the key components there to start hitting those run rates with the asset. So, we have that, but really when you get out to 2023, this $2 billion that I'm talking about, a bunch of that flows to cost management and such. So, by the time we get to 2023 that would be our target to deliver the US$15 a barrel.
And part of it is I would say the -- at some point the cost management that we've had a lot of this has been structuring and operating well. Now, we're talking about how do we leverage technology to make the business far more efficient, to make it more reliable. So we have some interesting pilots around technology using artificial intelligence as an example to be able to predict what's going to happen in our oil sands business and to be able to intervene earlier to avoid upsets, increase our reliability, reduce catastrophic failures those sorts of things. So, we're making some good progress on there. But by the end of 2023, the cost numbers that I talked about we would expect to see in our business.
Can you give us sort of a status report on Syncrude? It seems like we've put together -- I don't know if it's three or four pretty good quarters. Prior to that, it was a little more volatile and there are more incidents. Do you feel like the risk level of an incident has come down based on what you've done in that asset?
Yes. I mean, the answer to that is definitely the risk level is coming down. This is kind of the rationale that -- we bought a troubled asset at a troubled price. When we thought about the opportunity to significantly improve the performance, we saw that as a huge potential win but we weren't willing to pay for it because we still -- it's a joint venture. We don't have control. Despite having 58% ownership in the asset, we don't have control over everything that happens. So all the owners, the four owners ourselves, Exxon, Sinopec and CNOOC are the four owners that are left.
So we've gone through to -- when we bought this asset, they got a good return with the problems that it had and then we -- our big win for the shareholders is to fix the asset and get it to perform properly, achieved the 90% and the CAD 30 or $22.50 operating cost. That's actually a huge win because we didn't pay for it. So when you go back and look at that asset, we now have 24 people that are physically seconded into the business.
Now it's different because the people who were seconding have worked in oil sands mining and upgrading in the region of Fort McMurray literally for decades. And some of the other owners when they've been able to put people in they're coming from jurisdictions and have never worked in oil sands. And the thing that's different about oil sands is that feedstock that's going into the upgrader has about 3.5% water and sediment in it. So you have to take that into account when you set your reliability programs and those sorts of things.
So, well I think, we're making very good progress. They've had a good run. It's kind of ironic that they've been operating so well and doing well during a period of curtailment where the government has them throttled back which is a bit ironic. Is it perfect? That's not perfect. We still have things to do. And one of the big levers that we have in that business is interconnecting pipes. So, I was telling somebody the other day that there was some sand that fell out in a line Syncrude at the start of 2018.
And we literally throttled 20%, 30% of the entire platform, the mine, the extraction facilities utilities, upgrading, hydro trading, we idled all of that like literally billions and billions of equipment because we couldn't get all the crude oil through. The interconnecting pipeline allows you to bring in bitumen from other areas like our Firebag business, or McKay, or Fort Hills, so that you can keep the rest of the assets full, while you deal with some sand falling out in a pipeline.
So we know that, putting this interconnecting it will improve the performance of the business at our base plant is -- it was significant. So that pipeline is expected to show up towards the end of 2020. That's a big step change for Syncrude. They've never had that capability in their 40-plus-year history. So, I think we're making good progress. The war isn't over. It's definitely better than it was.
Any other questions? Maybe I'll just ask one to you, Mark. You talked about frankly the importance of market access egress. Would be interested on your perspectives on the biggest pipeline projects that are underway namely Trans Mountain, Expansion, KXL and obviously the Enbridge Line three issues.
Well you just talked to Enbridge, right?
Okay. We'll do with the other two then.
I think look we believe for a long time that the projects will go ahead. Keystone XL is probably a little more challenging. Trans Mountain we've seen some good news. They're plowing ahead and starting construction. Do we think the challenges are over? No. I think in a lot of these cases you're going to find that the risk as they trade sideways, because everybody is giving you an optimistic schedule if they get all their approvals and move forward. It's one of the reasons that we don't want to sanction a bunch of growth hoping the pipeline shows up which is one of the reasons we're in this situation now.
And then you find out, oh it trades -- it gets pushed out a year or two. And then we have this huge cloud of oil in Canada that can't get market access. So Trans Mountain I think is in pretty good shape. Line 3 there's still a lot of work going on. There has been some favorable decisions there recently. So we're looking to push ahead. But could it get pushed out in time? Yes, I think it could and there's still some more challenge. Keystone XL is a massive investment and the political situation in the U.S. I think is increasing the risk associated with that. So that's one that a lot of people are doing soul-searching about right now because it's also a very substantial investment. So now, we still believe it'll go ahead. But we'll -- time will tell.
Could you go back to that slide where you're describing the carbon removal prior to the extraction or prior to the refining? There you -- there it was. Yes, right there.
Yes. You were talking about -- this is the only example on the planet where someone is actually removing carbon before what it was combusted or refined?
What -- so if this is a barrel of bitumen so the way our own processes is worked that we've used literally for 50 years is we cut the barrel along. What I mean by that is you got 100% of the barrel plus you get about 3.5% water and sediment. So the problem is the upgraders were originally built up there to clean the barrel. You can't ship a barrel that has 3.5% water and sediment into a pipeline. So not only that barrel going into the machine when the product comes out the diesel and synthetic crude and stuff, we meet pipeline specifications of less than 0.5%.
At Fort Hills and a couple of other operations up north, we do something different. We take that raw bitumen barrel with its 3.5% of water and we use a solvent deasphalting. It's kind of a refining process to cut the barrel. So it's a chemical process. We cut the bottom of the barrel off and so it's somewhere between 7% and 12% that we cut off of that barrel. And that bottom that we cut off is asphaltenes. So it's about 50% of the asphaltenes and the barrel get cut off along with the water and sediment and we put it back in the ground where we just produced it from. So what is left is 90% of the barrel that gets shipped to market.
Is that solvent or distillation? How are you cutting the bottom?
It's solvent. So it's chemical process. And it's a high-temperature high process -- or high-temperature high-pressure process that we use with solvent to cut the barrel. So we literally go in extract carbon out of the barrel and ship the remaining portion of the barrel to market.
And so what are the numbers again? You're cutting off 8% of the volume, but 30% of the carbon? Was that roughly the number?
No. I'm trying to remember on a full life cycle basis. I think it's 12% of the greenhouse gas emissions and you cut off 8% of the barrel. The thing that's interesting about it is when you cut off that portion of the barrel and you take the remaining portion through refinery you end up getting about 6% of that barrel back like your yield goes up, because instead of that showing up in petroleum coke in a refinery, it's actually the remaining barrel showing up as clean product.
So it's one of the reasons, if you go and look at our financials, you'll find out that it's easier for us to ship the barrel. We need less diluent. It takes less pipeline space. It gets higher yields in the refinery. So you're seeing -- I can't remember the average is -- one quarter, we actually showed a $7 premium for Fort Hills bitumen versus Firebag bitumen. So with -- we think it's good financially it's good for the environment. But I've literally had people tell me that well you can't change the carbon content in oil and I'm going no actually our process is specifically designed to do that.
And that started off as just a cheaper way to get rid of the water? Or you were thinking about this upgrading element as well?
It's interesting. This was originally invented as a maintenance technology by Syncrude long ago that was specifically focused on trying to figure out how to get rid of the water and the sediment, but it's changed a lot of things. No one really just thought about -- now we can ship a mined barrel all the way to the U.S. Gulf Coast without going through a refinery or an upgrader.
All right, okay. I think we have to cut it off now. There is a breakout session in the Riverside suite, so I certainly would welcome more questions there. But again, let us thank Mark for his presentation.