Imperial Oil says strong refining margins key to jump in third-quarter profit

CALGARY – Imperial Oil Ltd. says higher margins at its refineries were the main reason for a 21 per cent jump in its third-quarter profit, handily beating analysts’ expectations.

The Calgary-based integrated energy company (TSX:IMO) says its net income during the three-month period rose to $1.04 billion, or $1.22 per share, compared to $859 million or $1.01 a share for the same period last year.

The profits easily outstripped the average analyst estimate of $1.08 per share, according to Thomson Reuters.

Earnings in Imperial’s downstream segment — which encompasses oil refining and retailing — had its strongest-ever quarter with earnings of $536 million, about double what they were a year earlier.

Two of Imperial’s peers that have reported their third quarter results in the past day — Suncor Energy Inc. (TSX:SU) and Husky Energy Inc. (TSX:HSE) — also did well on the downstream end.

While an overabundance of crude in North America has reduced prices and dampened the profits of many oilsands producers, companies like Imperial that have refinery operations are somewhat buffered from that effect. What integrated energy firms lose in producing oil, they make up for in refining it, because it’s cheaper to buy crude to run through their facilities.

Imperial’s total revenues came in at $8.3 billion for the quarter compared to $7.9 billion year over year.

Imperial is majority owned by Houston-based energy heavyweight ExxonMobil Corp. (NYSE:XOM)

Work on Imperial’s $10.9-billion Kearl project is 98 per cent complete the project is on track to start up by the end of this year.

Last year, Imperial’s board of directors approved an $8.9-billion expansion that will begin producing 110,000 barrels per day by late 2015.

When Imperial announced in 2009 that it would build the Kearl mine, it expected three phases of roughly the same size. Later, it decided to instead build the mine in two phases, with smaller projects along the way to boost output in increments.

Imperial and its parent are in the early stages of weighing a liquefied natural gas export terminal on Canada’s West Coast in order to get a better price for the gas it produces in province’s northeast.

The acreage Imperial has in the Horn River Basin contains dry gas, which can fetch a price several times higher in Asia than it could in North America, which is awash in supplies.

ExxonMobil recently announced a deal to buy Calgary-based natural gas producer Celtic Exploration Ltd. (TSX:CLT) for $3.1 billion. Imperial Oil isn’t part of the deal, but is evaluating the opportunity to take on a 50 per cent stake in the future.

Imperial has vast steam-driven oilsands operations at Cold Lake, a 25 per cent stake in the Syncrude Canada oilsands mine, a handful of refineries across Canada and a chain of Esso-branded fuel stations.

Imperial shares rose more than three per cent to $45.55 in afternoon trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange.