Four major companies announced significant sales of their oil sands assets, all to Canadian buyers, since December. High costs and low oil prices have made it harder to generate acceptable profits from Alberta’s heavy crude.

In mid-December Norwegian Statoil ASA sold its stake in the oil sands to Calgary-based Athabasca Oil Corp in a deal worth up to $832 million. Athabasca acquired the Leismer steamdriven project, which produces 24,000 barrels a day, as well as the undeveloped Corner lease – both are located south of Fort McMurray and employ some 220 people.

In early March Royal Dutch Shell sold current and undeveloped assets to Canadian Natural Resources for US$7.3 billion. These are made up of Shell’s 60-per-cent stake in the Athabasca Oil Sands Project which includes the Albian Sands mining operation north of Fort McMurray, the Shell-operated Scotford bitumen upgrader and Quest carbon capture project northeast of Edmonton. Shell and Canadian Natural also acquired Houston-based Marathon Oil’s 20 per cent stake in Athabasca for US$1.23 billion each. Shell is trying to trim its debt, which totaled US$73 billion last year.

Houston-based ConocoPhillips agreed to sell its Canadian oil sands and natural gas assets later in March to Calgarybased Cenovus Energy for $17.7 billion. The deal saw Cenovus acquiring ConocoPhillips’s 50 per cent stake in oil sands assets the two companies previously co-owned, and the latter’s conventional oil and natural gas assets in westcentral Alberta and northeastern B.C.’s Deep Basin.