Contrary to pop-culture opinion, Canada’s largest industry is neither hockey equipment production nor donut retailing. It’s energy, which isn’t surprising given the country’s vast area and its inhabitants’ expertise at exploiting its natural abundance. the country’s proven oil reserves are vast enough to meet its energy demands for 140 years at the current rate of production.
Much of Canada’s oil reserves consist of oil contained in the oil sands of Alberta. However, other non-oil sands deposits are very popular across all of western Canada in what is known as the Sedimentary Basin. Provinces that will be of interest to energy investors across North America include Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories.
Energy companies dominate the Canadian stock market, and a few of them have grown into titans that could compete on any level, in any nation. Here are the 10 most dominant:
Suncor Energy Inc. (SU) is Canada’s equivalent of America's Wal-Mart Stores., Inc. (WMT) – the nation’s largest company by revenue. Founded in 1919 as a subsidiary of what eventually became Sunoco Inc., Suncor is the one company more responsible than any other for developing the Athabasca tar sands, the New York State-sized area of crude oil deposits in northern Alberta that holds potentially trillions of barrels of petroleum: a supply that could last centuries.
But Suncor does more than hold claim over thousands of square miles of black gold. The company has upstream, midstream, and downstream operations, boasting four high-capacity refineries and 1,500 gas stations throughout Canada (under the Petro-Canada name). It’s estimated that the economic value of the ground beneath Suncor’s surface mining and in situ operations will total in the tens of billions of dollars over the next 30 years, which should keep the company at or near the top of this list. With its $57 billion market capitalization, Suncor is often viewed as the 800-pound gorilla of the Canadian energy sector.
Even more than a century after its breakup at the hands of U.S. regulators, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil remains North America’s dominant player in production and refining. Its successors include Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), Chevron Corp. (CVX), parts of British Petroleum plc (BP), and in Canada, Imperial Oil Ltd. (IMO).
(For more, see "J.D. Rockefeller: From Oil Baron to Billionaire.")
Owned almost 70% by Exxon Mobil, Imperial also conducts both upstream (exploration, production) and downstream (distribution, marketing) businesses. Imperial has a huge presence in the stark but bountiful landscapes of western Canada. The company not only has significant interests in the Athabasca sands but also in the Greater Sierra field of northeastern British Columbia and the southwest Northwest Territories.
Like most of its counterparts in this vital and occasionally homogenous industry, Husky Energy Inc. (HSE) is integrated through every step of the process, from digging at the source to flowing into customers’ vehicles. Founded in the 1930s in Wyoming, Calgary-based Husky is the first entrant on our list with noteworthy operations outside the Dominion. Husky owns a large deepwater gas project in the South China Sea and has 40% interest in a nearby subsea oil field. That’s in addition to Husky’s Atlantic Ocean developments, situated primarily off the coast of Newfoundland.
(For more, see "Oil and Gas Industry Primer.")
Spun out of the oil and gas operations of its former parent EnCana Corp. (ECA), Cenovus Energy Inc. (CVE) manages two rich projects in – well, you’ll never guess the Athabasca sands. Our fourth-consecutive company headquartered in Calgary, Cenovus owns half of Foster Creek, a deposit about 1500 feet below the surface; and half of the Christina Lake reservoir, both in east-central Alberta. The remaining half of each is the property of Houston-based ConocoPhillips Co. (COP). On the downstream side, Cenovus is itself a 50% partner with a ConocoPhillips spinoff, Phillips 66 (PSX) in two U.S. refineries – one outside of St. Louis, the other in the heart of the Texas panhandle.
Canadian Natural Resources
One of the few organically homegrown and wholly Canadian oil companies on our list, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNQ) was founded in 1973 (in Calgary, naturally) and spent its first 20 years or so in relative obscurity. That changed almost overnight with the accelerated development of the Athabasca sands, which Canadian Natural was primed to capitalize upon. Not content with growing its operations merely in western Canada, the company generates billions in revenue from oil fields in the North Sea. But for every dollar the company earns in Europe, it earns several more from its light crude blocks in Africa. Canadian Natural has deepwater interests off the shores of Ivory Coast, Ghana and Gabon; in 2014, it took over drilling in the Southern Outeniqua basin, which is just 200 miles or so from the Cape of Good Hope.
(For more, see: "A Guide to Oil and Gas Plays in North America.")
Syncrude Canada Ltd., as its name indicates, specializes in the synthetic crude oil which is essentially bitumen that’s been removed from the Earth and upgraded (distilled and thinned so it can be transported) but not yet refined. Syncrude operates exclusively in its home province of Alberta, producing enough low-sulfur oil to supply one-fifth of Canadians. (By the way, Syncrude’s corporate offices aren’t in Calgary, but rather Ft. McMurray — a good 460 miles north.)
Another point of differentiation between Syncrude and its cohorts is that Syncrude doesn’t trade publicly. It’s not really a standalone company, but rather a consortium of seven major oil-and-gas players. The three largest partners – in descending order – are Canadian Oil Sands Ltd. (COS), Imperial and Suncor. They own 74% of the company. The remainder is the property of two Chinese state-owned enterprises, a Japanese firm and a smaller American one.
EnCana (ECA), the one-time parent company of Cenovus, is only slightly smaller than its rapidly growing spinoff. Since jettisoning Cenovus, EnCana has become primarily a natural gas company with projects in British Columbia, Alberta and off the coast of Nova Scotia. However, EnCana retains oil interests in its American operations. In fact, the Calgary-based company’s U.S. subsidiary is named EnCana Oil & Gas. Those particular operations are located across more than 4,000 square miles of visibly barren but clandestinely teeming soil throughout much of the United States. EnCana’s richest deposits are found in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale of Louisiana and the DJ Basin, which covers parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado. (For more, see "EnCana Likes Long Term Natural Gas Fundamentals.")
Our list’s first wholly-owned subsidiary of a larger corporation is Calgary-based Harvest Operations, which was developed in the early 2000s and sold in the marketplace as an investment trust, thus enabling its owners to avoid double taxation. With wells dotting Alberta and Saskatchewan, and a refinery in Newfoundland, Harvest does business only in Canada (and the nearby waters of the North Atlantic.) Management at Korea National Oil Corp. knew a lucrative investment when they saw it, and in 2009 made a play for Harvest. The unitholders (the investment trust equivalent of shareholders) overwhelmingly said yes to the takeover bid, and since then Harvest has operated as a branch of Korea National.
What’s the largest independent oil company on the continent? That’d be Toronto-based Energy Corp. (TSX: FEC), and if that sounds so surprising as to arouse suspicion, we didn’t say which continent. Founded in 1985 as Pacific Rubiales, the self-styled "low cost, exploration and production company" changed names in 2015, declared bankruptcy in 2016, and re-emerged and began trading once more as Frontera in 2017. It produces a huge portion of the crude oil in Peru and Colombia and has a controlling interest in another large deposit in Guatemala. Despite its upheavals, Frontera has s a big advantage in a part of the world as yet unexplored by the company’s contemporaries.
We return to Calgary for a firm which began with a single gas station in London, Ontario, in 1925. Upon growing to multinational size, it was eventually bought by British Petroleum; sold off by the parent and taken public in 1992, it became Talisman Energy, a Canadian company with intercontinental reach. The Spanish company Repsol acquired it in mid-2015, boosting its total output by 75% to 680,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day (BOE/D). With approximately 1.1 million net acres of land in Western Canada, Repsol is a key player in the Canadian oil and gas industry. It's focused on liquids and gas assets in the Greater Edson area of Alberta, conventional heavy oil western assets in the Chauvin area of Alberta/Saskatchewan, and liquids-rich gas assets in Alberta’s Duvernay play. Operations include four operated gas plants in the Edson area and an oil treatment facility in Chauvin.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to investing in oil companies and oil-related assets, one of the best options is to look to Canada. For investors interested in tapping into Canada's oil-exploiting companies, there are several companies to consider (most trade on the U.S. stock exchanges) – and ETFs for retail investors who'd prefer a more diversified approach. The only thing better than accessibility is the fact they each of the companies is also nearing very significant levels of support, which equates to lucrative risk/reward ratio for those willing to look beyond the border. From oil sands and bitumen plays to offshore drilling and international exploration and production, there are plenty of opportunities to play the oil riches of Canada and other nations.
(For related reading, see "TransCanada Sits in Oil Pipeline Catbird Seat.")