Suncor delays maintenance project as COVID-19 cases plague Fort McMurray area

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Suncor Energy Inc. will delay a planned maintenance shutdown at its Base Plant oilsands mine upgrader in view of surging COVID-19 outbreaks that led to a state of emergency being declared last week for the Fort McMurray area of northern Alberta.

CEO Mark Little says the delay of the maintenance "turnaround" for one of the coker units in the upgrader will allow the company to reduce the number of contractors in the region until after similar work now underway at the nearby Syncrude oilsands mine is completed, without affecting production guidance.

Suncor produced 519,900 barrels per day of upgraded synthetic crude in the first quarter, up from 503,600 bpd in the first quarter of 2020, due in part to efficiencies from completion of a project to add pipeline connections between upgraders at its Base Plant and Syncrude (which is 58.74 per cent owned by Suncor).

Suncor's total production was 785,900 barrels of oil equivalent per day, compared with 739,800 boe/d in the same quarter of 2020, as steam-driven production of bitumen from wells reached a record level of 170,700 barrels per day.

The Calgary-based oilsands producer and refiner says it earned $821 million in the first three months of 2021, including a $181-million unrealized after-tax foreign exchange gain on the revaluation of debt and an after-tax restructuring charge of $126 million related to workforce reductions.

Suncor said recently it had reduced its employee count by about 600 in 2020 and will make more cuts this year. The company announced in October it would reduce total staff by 10 to 15 per cent, or as many as 1,930 jobs, over 18 months.

"Currently, the third wave of the pandemic in Canada is significantly impacting the region of Fort McMurray," Little said on a conference call.

"Given this situation, and with Syncrude in the middle of turnaround schedule, we've delayed the start of our U2 turnaround at Base Plant until at least June ... This decision supports the completion of Syncrude turnaround and minimizes the overlap between the two assets."

In the first quarter of 2020, Suncor lost $3.5 billion, including $1.8 billion of non-cash after-tax asset impairment charges and a $1 billion unrealized after-tax foreign exchange loss on the revaluation of U.S. dollar denominated debt.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2021.