Cost-cutting helps Suncor turn surprising $392M profit in 3rd quarter

Analysts had expected a loss from Suncor in the third quarter of 2016, but it turned a profit instead as it pulled costs down to levels not seen in a decade.

Suncor beats Bay Street's expectations with a healthy profit in the summer quarter

Suncor's earnings are positive news for an energy sector that is in need of a boost. (Canadian Press)

Suncor reported a $392 million net profit in the third quarter of the year, well exceeding some analyst expectations of a loss.

Canada's largest energy company says that it pulled cash operating costs per barrel of oil down by 18 per cent over the past year to $22.15.

Cash operating costs include general administration, as well as production costs.

Suncor also generated $2 billion in cash flow, as production returned to normal levels after being shut-in during the Fort McMurray wildfires.

"Our performance demonstrates the strength of our core assets and our ability to deliver strong cash flow, even in a lower price environment," said Suncor chief executive Steve Williams in a release.

This is positive news for an energy sector that is in need of a boost, and it follows a report last week of hiring in the oilpatch.

1,000 field workers back to work

To start off earnings season, Precision Drilling announced some good news last week along with its third-quarter earnings. Although the company lost $47 million in the third quarter and revenue was down by nearly a half, it also said that it had rehired 1,000 workers.

Precision Drilling employed 4,337 people at the end of 2015, compared with 7,834 a year earlier, so 1,000 hires is significant.

In a conference call with analysts, Precision's chief executive Kevin Neveu said that sentiment in the industry was the best he had seen in two years.

The conventional oil and gas sector is getting ready for the winter drilling season. Winter is the busiest time of year for the Canadian oilpatch, as heavy drill rigs are more easily transported over frozen ground. Most counties have bans on transporting that equipment in the spring to preserve rural roads.

Oilsands costs still relatively high

That is not necessarily the case in the oilsands.

While Suncor has been effective in getting costs down, according to research done by consulting group Wood MacKenzie, new thermal or steam-assisted gravity drainage oilsands projects break even at between $55 and $70 US a barrel. Already producing thermal projects break even between $30 and $45 a barrel. Mining projects all have break-evens below $50.

Suncor's oilsands operations are focused on mines, including its stake in Syncrude.

Suncor will hold its analyst conference call Thursday morning. That will offer context for its spending plans over the coming months.

Robert Mark, a portfolio manager with Raymond James Financial, expects oilsands spending to be slower than conventional producers.

"They're going to be slower turning the ship around, they need more time to get comfortable that prices aren't going to take another leg down.

"But sitting today in October, with overall fundamentals in the market, and positive news from OPEC, there's quite a few reasons to be moderately bullish."