01/31/2012 10:19 EST | Updated 04/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Suncor Q4 fourth-quarter profits hit $1.43 billion, operations resume in Libya

CALGARY - Suncor Energy Inc. reported more than $1.4 billion in fourth quarter profits and said late Tuesday crude is starting to flow out of its Libyan operations following a bloody civil war in the North African country.

Canada's largest oil and gas company said production has resumed in three of five fields in Libya, and that it has begun receiving payment for sales of crude oil.

"Suncor is optimistic about a return to business in the country," the Calgary-based company said in an earnings statement late Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, Suncor said it owed the increase in net earnings to higher oil prices. The $1.43 billion in profits amounted to 91 cents per share, compared to $1.29 billion, or 82 cents per share a year earlier.

Stripped of one-time items, Suncor's (TSX:SU) operating earnings were also $1.43 billion during the last three months of 2011, compared to $808 million, or 51 cents per share, during the fourth quarter of 2010.

The earnings came in slightly above the average analyst estimate of 90 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters.

Revenues for the quarter were $10.1 billion versus $9.3 billion a year earlier.

Production volumes from Suncor's vast oilsands operations, excluding its 12 per cent stake in the Syncrude Canada mine, averaged 326,500 barrels per day, a modest increase from 325,900 a year earlier.

"Our ongoing focus on operational excellence in 2011 led to impressive gains in reliability company-wide and record levels of oil sands production," said Rick George, Suncor's outgoing CEO, in a news release.

"Following our largest ever turnaround at our second upgrader, we had our two highest quarters on record for oilsands production, capped by a single month record of 345,000 barrels per day in December."

Suncor's total upstream production during the fourth quarter averaged 576,500 barrels per day, a drop from 625,600 barrels per day during the same period of 2010.

The decrease was due to asset sales throughout 2010 and 2011, lower output in Libya and unplanned outages at Syncrude.

For the full year, Suncor's annual profits jumped to just over $4.3 billion or $2.74 a share from $3.8 billion or $2.45 a share in 2010.

In December, George announced he'll retire at the company's annual general meeting in May after more than two decades at the helm. Steve Williams, Suncor's current chief operating officer, will take the reins.

Suncor became Canada's largest energy company when it merged with former Crown corporation Petro-Canada in 2009.

Through the transaction it inherited oil assets in Libya and Syria, where the company had been forced to suspend operations amid violent uprisings over the past year.

In December, Suncor pulled its employees out of Syria in order to comply with sanctions aimed at isolating the regime of President Bashar Assad, condemned internationally for his government's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

Around a year ago it pulled its employees out of Libya when conflict broke out in the North African country. During the second quarter of last year, Suncor took a $514-million writedown on its Libyan assets.

Suncor is the largest operator in the oilsands, with huge mining operations north of Fort McMurray, a 12 per cent interest in the Syncrude Canada Ltd. mine, a 41 per cent stake in the yet-to-be-developed Fort Hills mine and steam-driven operations at Firebag and Mackay river.

Just over a year ago, Suncor inked a $1.75-billion deal with the Canadian division of France's Total SA to work together in the oilsands.