* Kearl production expected by March 31
* Company unable to predict initial oil volumes
* Must fill tanks, pipeline first
CALGARY, Alberta, March 18 Imperial Oil Ltd said on Monday its expects its C$12.9 billion ($12.66 billion) Kearl oil sands project to begin operating within the next two weeks, more than three months past its original target, but the company cannot yet say how much oil the plant will initially produce.
Pius Rolheiser, a spokesman for Imperial, said operations at the first of Kearl's three production trains, capable of handling up to 50,000 barrels of heavy oil sands crude per day, will begin by month's end.
"We're working on the start-up of the first froth-treatment train," Rolheiser said. "I can't say (how much production) that might be. It will depend on the success of our efforts between now and the end of the first quarter ... Whether it will be at full capacity? I don't know."
First oil from the facility was initially expected in December. But a series of court challenges in the U.S. Pacific Northwest that stalled the transport of huge foreign-made processing modules to the project site pushed completion into the coldest months of northern Alberta's winter, slowing outdoor work at the site.
Kearl, co-owned by Imperial and Exxon Mobil Corp, will eventually produce 110,000 bpd from its initial stage, with subsequent expansions slated to push output to 345,000 bpd.
However, even if initial production begins at the train's full 50,000 bpd capacity, no oil from the project is expected to hit the over-supplied Canadian market for weeks. Imperial must first fill storage tanks and the pipeline to the facility, a process analysts expect to take as much as 90 days.