UPDATE 3-Oil sands developer Opti may opt to sell itself

Tue Nov 3, 2009 6:55pm EST

* Launches strategic review

* Review may result in sale of company

* No timetable for completion (Adds comments from Nexen)

By Scott Haggett and Jeffrey Jones

CALGARY, Alberta, Nov 3 (Reuters) - Oil sands developer Opti Canada Inc OPC.TO said on Tuesday it may seek a buyer as part of a review of strategic alternatives with the pace of takeovers in the country's energy sector picking up.

The move comes as Opti tries to deal with its flagging share value as the price of oil strengthens but its main project struggles to produce reliably in its early months.

The company, known for its 35 percent stake in Nexen Inc's NXY.TO Long Lake, Alberta, oil sands project, said its board is examining such alternatives as a sale or merger, restructuring of debt or an asset sale.

Opti said in a release that the improving economy and rising prices for oil sands assets favored remaining independent but its board wants to decide the best course for raising the price of its shares.

It is weighing its options just days after fellow small oil sands developer UTS Energy Corp UTS.TO sold C$250 million worth of leases to Imperial Oil Ltd (IMO.TO) and Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N), and after Asian state oil companies have bought up a host of Canadian energy assets.

"If there was any time to try to do this, probably now is the time, given what UTS did and PetroChina (PTR.N) and Athabasca Oil Sands did," Genuity Capital Markets analyst Phil Skolnick said.

In August, PetroChina spent C$1.9 billion to scoop up stakes in two oil sands projects owned by privately held Athabasca, sparking speculation that Opti could be next on the shopping list for Asian firms.

Companies from China, Korea and elsewhere are anxious to buy up long-life oil sands developments as they seek energy assets around the world to help fuel their growing economies.

Opti shares rose 2 Canadian cents to C$1.90 on Tuesday on the Toronto Stock Exchange. It announced the review after markets closed.

At its current price, Opti has an equity value of about C$530 million.

Opti shares have fallen 42 percent over the past 12 months as Nexen struggles to raise output from the Long Lake project, saying last month that it was unlikely to reach its 60,000 barrel per day capacity until at least 2011.

Opti was also hit by the credit crunch and was forced last year to sell a 15 percent stake in the project to Nexen for C$735 million, making it a smaller partner in a project in which it once controlled a half interest.

Nexen, Canada's No. 4 independent oil explorer, said it doubted it would seek Opti's remaining stake.

"We have lots of projects in the company that we're working on and we had our chance to have a good chunk of it back when we did the 15 percent," spokesman Michael Harris said. "I think if we wanted more then we would have gone for more."

Opti has hired Scotia Waterous and TD Securities to act as financial advisers.

It did not say how long it would take to complete the review.

The decision to pore over alternatives signals Opti feared it could face financial pressure as early as next year, Skolnick said. That would be after it had raised C$150 million in a stock issue last June.

"If production doesn't ramp up, because of the interest payment that they have on their notes, they could run out of financial flexibility," he said.

($1=$1.07 Canadian) (Editing by Rob Wilson; editing by Rob Wilson)

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