The turmoil in Libya has brought Calgary-based Suncor's operations in that country into the limelight, but whether the company ends up regretting its investment there is still very much an open question.

"[Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi has come across sounding highly erratic to say the least. We'll have to see how the dust settles over there, but frankly I think any change in Libya is probably for the better," First Energy Capital analyst Martin Molyneaux told CBC News.

Suncor, Canada's largest oil producer and refiner, inherited the Libyan operations in its merger with Petro-Canada in March 2009.

At about 50,000 barrels a day, the assets represent only a small part — less than nine per cent — of Suncor's annual production.

'I think any change in Libya is probably for the better.' —Martin Molyneaux, First Energy Capital analyst

And with the turmoil in North Africa and the Mideast driving investors towards Canadian oil companies — the TSX oil index rose by one per cent Tuesday, as the overall market fell by about the same proportion — the overall effect on Suncor's share price appears to be negligible.

But Suncor CEO Rick George may have a more difficult time trying to find a buyer for the Libyan operation, Andrew Leach, assistant professor at the University of Alberta's school of business, told CBC News.

"It's something that Rick George has made no secret of trying to sell pretty much since the merger," said Leach. "He's made no secret that the partnership with Libyan government is not one he wants."

Whether the new government, if there is one, ends up removing operating licences or nationalizing foreign companies is difficult to predict, said Leach. 

"It's really hard to see … even less so than Egypt," he said. "There's no real heir apparent in the situation and no clear leader on the opposition side."

Molyneaux doubted that the rules will change for companies, or that nationalization would pose much of a threat.


Greenpeace activists protest near a Suncor upgrader in September 2009. The attention focused on Libya, a business professor says, may promote debate over which is worse: oil from the oilsands or from repressive regimes. ((Jiri Rezac/Greenpeace/Associated Press) )

"In the world of energy today, you need to attract capital, and lots of it. Nobody can live in isolation in the oil and gas world today, the Libyans especially."

Leach said the attention Libya is getting may even benefit Suncor, as a major player in Canada's oilsands, by re-focusing the debate about the ethics of developing the oilsands as opposed to buying from oppressive regimes.

He used as an example the European Union's proposal in 2009 — which was never adopted — to discriminate against oil produced from Alberta's oilsands as "dirty oil." 

"Ten per cent of the EU's oil comes from Libya," he said.

"When you're talking about [the EU] banning oilsands for low-carbon fuel reasons, this maybe pushes people to look at the other aspects of where we get our oil from."

Industry might welcome regime change

Molyneaux said if Gadhafi is overthrown, it might actually ease some of the concerns oil companies have about working in Libya, especially after the government's treatment of another Canadian oil and gas company, Verenex.

When the China National Petroleum Corporation made a takeover bid for Verenex and its valuable Libyan operations, Libya intervened and nationalized the Canadian company for less than the Chinese offered.

"A lot of companies still have question marks about Libya [because of that]," said Molyneaux.

There's no real surprise that not everybody is banging down the door to get into Libya after that whole Verenex issue left a number of Western oil and gas players and investors wondering what the score was over there," Molyneaux said.

But if there's a positive change in Libya, Molyneaux predicted, it will attract more publicly traded and state-owned oil companies, because its reserves — estimated at 44 billion barrels, or three per cent of the world's total — are so significant.

"The size of the prize is so large there," he said.