Athabasca confident on Dover oilsands sale, Duvernay joint venture

CALGARY – Athabasca Oil Corp. (TSX:ATH) says it’s optimistic it will be able to sell its stake in the Dover oilsands project to its Chinese partner, despite recent setbacks, as well as land joint-venture deals for some of its other holdings.

But, should those efforts fail, the Calgary-based company (TSX:ATH) said Wednesday it is prepared to sharply reduce spending and pursue other measures to stay afloat.

On October 18, Alberta’s highest court gave an aboriginal group the right to appeal a regulatory decision to approve the Dover oilsands project, a joint venture between Athabasca and PetroChina, in the province’s north.

The Fort McKay First Nation wanted a 20-kilometre buffer zone around the Dover project, but the Alberta Energy Regulatory denied that request. The AER approved the Dover project in August.

On a conference call with analysts, Athabasca CEO Sveinung Svarte said he understands the matter is being treated as “ordinary business” at the Alberta cabinet level, although the matter did not make it onto its agenda this week.

The company has met with senior representatives in a number of Alberta government departments and has been assured the Fort McKay appeal process won’t have an impact on the timing of a final cabinet decision, said Terry Bachynski, vice-president of regulatory, stakeholder and government affairs.

Athabasca and PetroChina announced a deal in 2009 that would see the Chinese company own 60 per cent of the Canadian firm’s McKay River and Dover oilsands projects.

The deal included a provision that allows PetroChina to snap up Athabasca’s 40 per cent interest in each project once approvals are in hand.

PetroChina exercised that right in early 2012 for McKay River, buying Athabasca’s stake for $680 million, making it the first oilsands project to be fully controlled by the Chinese.

However, a similar purchase hasn’t been able to take place yet for the Dover project, delaying Athabasca from getting a much-needed cash infusion of $1.32-billion.

In the meantime, Athabasca has been on the hunt for a joint-venture partner to help it develop other oilsands projects and its Duvernay shale holdings.

When it comes the oilsands, new foreign investment rules introduced last year — following the controversial takeovers of Canadian companies Nexen and Progress Energy by Chinese and Malaysian state interests, respectively — have made things more difficult, Svarte said.

“The recent state-owned enterprise rules, the SOE rules, have complicated talks, even with joint-ventures where minority interests are the issue,” he said.

“This is mainly linked to normal contractual items, such as voting rights, default mechanisms, right of first refusal, sole risk etc., which could all impact control of a project and lead to change of control.”

If the PetroChina sale and the oilsands joint venture don’t go ahead, Svarte said Athabasca would hold off on investing in any new oilsands projects, but it would continue with one that’s currently underway — the first phase of its Hangingstone project.

In the Duvernay — a shale formation in Alberta rich in valuable natural gas liquids — interest in a joint venture has been brisk, with several companies kicking the tires.

“Although Athabasca would prefer a joint venture partner, we do have other options available,” said chief operating officer Rob Broen.

That could include self-funding with the proceeds from the eventual Dover sale to PetroChina or spinning off light oil assets, among other things.

Athabasca shares closed up nearly 1.4 per cent at $6.60, after rising as by as much as 5.5 per cent earlier on in the day.

Athabasca posted a net loss of $30.5 million, or seven cents per share, for the third quarter, widening from a loss of $11.8 million, or three cents per share a year earlier.