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Questions arise over Canadian Oil Sands as it lays out 2016 spending plans

CALGARY – Canadian Oil Sands Ltd., fighting a hostile takeover bid by Suncor Energy, has laid out spending plans and performance targets for next year that it says demonstrate shareholders are well-served under the status quo.

Throughout the heated takeover debate, Suncor (TSX:SU) has cast COS (TSX:COS) as a risky investment as a stand-alone firm, given the likelihood of a prolonged oil price downturn.

But on a conference call Tuesday, COS CEO Ryan Kubik said with major project spending complete and cost savings taking hold, the company is poised to enter 2016 in good shape.

It’s expecting capital spending to come in at $295 million next year. In October, it estimated 2015 spending at $368 million.

“Canadian Oil Sands is becoming more resilient and will emerge from this oil price downturn even stronger,” said Kubik.

At least one investor on the call wasn’t convinced.

Robert Cooper, with Calgary investment dealer Acumen Capital Partners, expressed frustration at COS’s share price performance and dividend growth compared to Suncor. And he wondered why COS turned down a higher friendly offer in the spring.

At the time that Suncor made its all-stock hostile approach on Oct. 5, it was worth $8.84 a share. An earlier friendly attempt was valued at $11.84 as of March 31.

Based on Monday’s close, the offer is now worth $9.23 a share, or $4.5 billion.

Cooper said COS should be trying to negotiate a better deal with Suncor.

“I really want to know, after shareholders have really got their face ripped off in the past year, who’s looking out for them?” Cooper asked.

Kubik responded that his company is much more sensitive to swings in crude prices — on the upside and downside — than Suncor.

COS says for every US$10 per barrel increase in oil prices, cash flow is bolstered by about $300 million.

The company expects to generate $338 million in free cash flow next year. It is basing its 2016 assumptions on US$50 U.S. benchmark crude, versus about US$42 currently.

COS’s main asset is its 37 per cent share in the Syncrude oilsands mine north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

Suncor is much bigger and more diversified, with a huge oilsands footprint as well as refineries, gas stations and offshore platforms. Suncor has a 12 per cent stake in Syncrude, meaning it would own just under half of the mine if it’s successful.

Kubik added shareholders should “take comfort” in a process underway to seek another bidder. A COS adviser has said 25 parties have expressed some degree of interest.

On Monday, the Alberta Securities Commission allowed COS to keep its so-called poison pill, a defensive tactic to buy time, in place until Jan. 4.

In an interview, Cooper said he wasn’t impressed with how Kubik responded to his questions.

“I think that’s a standard non-answer answer,” he said.

Thanks to the Suncor bid, COS has seen a boost in its share price, which has surged above $10 at some points since Suncor’s hostile approach in October.

If Suncor walks — which it has threatened to do — the stock will drop back to $5 or $6, said Cooper.

He acknowledges another suitor could emerge, but so far the most likely one — Syncrude partner Imperial Oil (TSX:IMO) — has been silent.

“The reality is you’re really worth what someone’s willing to pay for you,” said Cooper.

“There’s a real risk that Suncor does walk. As a Canadian Oil Sands shareholder, you’re going to get a swift kick in the shins.”

Follow @LaurenKrugel on Twitter.