10/31/2012 10:08 EDT | Updated 12/31/2012 05:12 EST

Athabasca Oil Corp Posts Net Loss But Still Proceeds With Oilsands Project

CALGARY - The CEO of Athabasca Oil Corp. says it's tough to predict when his company will be able to announce a joint venture for two of its oilsands properties, but that the current controversy over a Chinese takeover of Nexen Inc. isn't weighing on the process.

"We are having regular discussions with the parties involved, but we are all just waiting for government approval in the country in question, so really we have nothing further to add to that," Sveining Svarte said Wednesday.

"Timelines are very difficult to predict on this one," Svarte added during a conference call with analysts to discuss Athabasca's third-quarter results.

Athabasca had said in August that it was in the early stages of forming a joint venture for its Hangingstone and Birch oilsands properties.

The news followed reports that Kuwait's state-owned petroleum company was looking to invest as much as $4 billion in an oilsands partnership.

Athabasca has not identified the potential partner or partners.

"Obviously we are very happy with the parties coming in, so we have no intention to start talking to other parties at this stage," said Svarte.

The prospect of foreign investment in Canadian resource companies — especially state-owned enterprises — has been the subject of much political controversy since China National Offshore Oil Co. made its $15.1-billion bid this summer to buy Calgary-based Nexen (TSX:NXY).

An Industry Canada review of that deal to determine whether it would be of net benefit to Canada — a test critics say is too vague — is set to run until Nov. 11, after which it may be extended with the buyer's consent.

Ottawa has promised to clarify its foreign investment rules shortly.

On the call, Svarte shrugged off concerns about what a rejection of the CNOOC-Nexen deal would mean for his company's ability to attract foreign capital.

"We don't believe the federal government has changed its stance when it comes to approvals because I think they realize that foreign capital is needed for these kinds of projects," he said.

Besides, Athabasca doesn't intend to give up controlling stakes in its projects, so they wouldn't be subject to a net benefit review.

"So I think as well that would be a big difference. So we don't see that as a big problem for us."

Also Wednesday, Athabasca reported a narrower loss for the third quarter.

The net loss of $11.8 million marked an improvement over the $13.2 million Athabasca lost last year. On a per-share basis, the loss amounted to three cents in both quarters.

Total revenue came it at $5.1 million, down from $6.5 million in the third quarter of 2011.

The company said it was pressing ahead with the first phase of its Hangingstone project — one of the properties that would be involved in a joint venture.

Hangingstone, 20 kilometres southwest of Fort McMurray, Alta., is expected to start producing oil in late 2014. Athabasca says the property has the potential to produce more than 80,000 barrels a day.

Early engineering work for the first 12,000 barrel-per-day phase of Hangingstone is complete, and Athabasca's board of directors is expected to formally decide whether to move ahead with the project next month.

Svarte called winning regulatory approval for Hangingstone a "significant milestone."

"Hangingstone project 1 is progressing as scheduled and the company is fully staffed to execute and we expect this project to be built and start up in Q4 2014."

The other property, called Birch, is not as far along in development. Athabasca plans to submit a regulatory application later this year for its first 12,000 barrel per day phase. It says Birch, also near Fort McMurray, has the potential to produce 155,000 barrels a day.

Athabasca would use steam-assisted gravity drainage technology to extract the bitumen at both sites. SAGD involves injecting steam deep underground, making the bitumen thin enough to flow to the surface through a pipe.

Athabasca has also been testing new technology using electrical cables to heat the bitumen, eliminating the need for water.

Athabasca is no stranger to joint ventures. In 2009, Athabasca sold a 60 per cent interest in its MacKay River and Dover oilsands lands to PetroChina for $680 million.

Earlier this year, Athabasca exercised its option to sell the rest of MacKay River to PetroChina, making it the first oilsands operation to be fully controlled by a Chinese company.

The Dover project is expected to obtain regulatory approval early next year and once it does there will be a similar divestiture option that would see the remaining stake sold for $1.32 billion.

Earlier this week, PetroChina reached a 50-50 deal with TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP) to build a $3-billion pipeline connecting the MacKay and Dover projects to the Edmonton area.

"Always nice to have pipelines built to your doorstep," said Svarte.

Athabasca shares rose two cents to $12.15 in midday trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Wednesday.

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