Adjusted for one-time items, earnings amounted to 89 cents per share, well ahead of the 75 cents per share analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected.
Net income was $1.04 billion, or 94 cents per share, for the quarter ending Sept. 30, compared to $1.17 billion, or $1.07 per share, a year ago.
Cash flow dipped to $2.44 billion from $2.45 billion in the third quarter of 2013.
Production came in at nearly 797,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, up from almost 703,000 in the year-ago period.
Canadian Natural (TSX:CNQ) has set a capital budget for 2015 of $8.6 billion — $400 million higher than this year's outlay, if $3.8 billion in acquisitions are taken out of the mix.
President Steve Laut said Canadian Natural may look to do "opportunistic" acquisitions if they're at the right price and fit. But there aren't any gaps in the company's portfolio that need filling, he said.
About $2 billion of next year's budget can be shifted around if necessary.
"We're prepared for a low commodity price cycle," said Laut.
Cash flow next year is expected to be $9.4 billion.
The company aims to increase production by 11 per cent, with the mid-point of its production range at 893,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day.
Next year's plans are based on West Texas Intermediate crude at US$81 per barrel, $3.45 for Alberta natural gas prices and the loonie at 89 cents versus the U.S. dollar. It expects the price of heavy crude it producers to be about 18 per cent lower than WTI, a U.S. light crude benchmark.
Laut said Canadian Natural's Horizon mine, north of Fort McMurray, Alta., can churn out "impressive" free cash flow "for decades to come," even if WTI prices stay at US$70 per barrel for a prolonged period.
On Thursday, the December crude contract in New York was down $1.26 to US$77.42 a barrel.
An expansion to 250,000 barrels per day at Horizon should be completed over the next three years, with the work tracking on budget. A 45,000 barrel-per-day expansion is expected to be completed in late 2016, with another 80,000 barrels being added in late 2017.
Production at Horizon was lower during the third quarter as the plant was shut down for 25 days to hook up new equipment. Synthetic crude oil output averaged 82,000 barrels per day, down from 112,000 barrels a year earlier.
Production levels are expected to average 127,000 barrels per day for the rest of the year.
Canadian Natural shares rose about 2.4 per cent to $39.16 in early afternoon trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
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