Suncor recorded fourth quarter 2017 operating earnings of $1.310 billion ($0.79 per common share) compared to $636 million ($0.38 per common share) in the prior year quarter. Highlights of the quarter include improved crude oil pricing and benchmark crack spreads, lower operating and exploration costs, refinery utilization of 94%, higher sales volumes at Oil Sands and continued strong upstream production. Improved benchmark pricing in the quarter was partially offset by the strengthening of the Canadian dollar.
Funds from operations were $3.016 billion ($1.83 per common share) compared to $2.365 billion ($1.42 per common share) in the fourth quarter of 2016 and were influenced by the same factors impacting operating earnings noted above. Cash flow provided by operating activities, which includes changes in non-cash working capital, was $2.755 billion for the fourth quarter of 2017, compared to $2.791 billion for the fourth quarter of 2016.
Net earnings were $1.382 billion ($0.84 per common share) in the fourth quarter of 2017, compared to $531 million ($0.32 per common share) in the prior year quarter. Net earnings for the fourth quarter of 2017 included a net $124 million deferred income tax recovery related to a decrease in the United States (U.S.) corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%, an unrealized after-tax foreign exchange loss of $91 million on the revaluation of U.S. dollar denominated debt, after-tax insurance proceeds of $55 million, an after-tax loss of $18 million for early payment of debt and a net after-tax gain of $2 million on interest rate swaps associated with debt issued in the fourth quarter. Net earnings in the prior year quarter included an unrealized after-tax foreign exchange loss of $222 million on the revaluation of U.S. dollar denominated debt, $71 million of after-tax derecognition charges and a non-cash after-tax mark to market gain of $188 million on interest rate derivatives.
"Strong performance in both our upstream and downstream operations combined to generate record quarterly funds from operations of more than $3 billion," said Steve Williams, president and chief executive officer. "This was significantly higher than our capital and dividend commitments, allowing us to reduce long-term debt and return additional value to shareholders through more than $800 million in share repurchases."
Suncor's total upstream production was 736,400 boe/d in the fourth quarter of 2017, compared to 738,500 boe/d in the prior year quarter.
Oil Sands operations production was 446,800 barrels per day (bbls/d) in the fourth quarter of 2017, compared to 433,400 bbls/d in the prior year quarter, with the increase as a result of improved mining and extraction reliability and record Firebag production, partially offset by lower production at MacKay River. Upgrader utilization in the fourth quarters of 2017 and 2016 was strong at 93%, with both periods impacted by planned maintenance. Oil Sands operations production in the fourth quarter of 2017 also benefited from bitumen froth received from the Fort Hills primary extraction assets, which was further upgraded into synthetic crude oil (SCO).
Oil Sands operations cash operating costs per barrel decreased to $24.20 in the fourth quarter of 2017, compared to $24.95 in the prior year quarter, and represent the lowest level achieved during a fourth quarter in more than a decade. Improved production and a continued focus on cost discipline in 2017 resulted in Oil Sands operations achieving the lowest annual cash operating costs per barrel in more than a decade, decreasing to $23.80 from $26.50 in 2016.
Suncor's share of Syncrude production was 174,400 bbls/d in the fourth quarter of 2017, compared to 187,000 bbls/d in the prior year quarter. Syncrude upgrader reliability was strong in both quarters, with the fourth quarter of 2017 achieving 94% and the prior year quarter achieving 102%. Syncrude cash operating costs per barrel in the fourth quarter of 2017 were $32.80, and were comparable to $32.55 in the prior year quarter, due to a decrease in operating costs offsetting lower production.
Production volumes in Exploration and Production (E&P) were 115,200 boe/d in the fourth quarter of 2017, compared to 118,100 boe/d in the prior year quarter, with the decrease attributed to lower offshore production, partially offset by increased production from Libya and initial production from the newly commissioned Hebron asset, which began producing in the fourth quarter ahead of schedule.
R&M's refinery crude throughput was 432,400 bbls/d in the fourth quarter of 2017, compared to 427,300 bbls/d in the prior year quarter, with strong reliability at the majority of the company's refineries partially offset by the impact of a third-party power outage at the Montreal refinery. Average refinery utilization was 94% in the fourth quarter of 2017, and was comparable to 93% in the prior year quarter.
"We achieved greater than 90% reliability at all of our Oil Sands upgrading assets and a combined refinery utilization of 94% during the fourth quarter," said Williams. "Our continued focus on disciplined cost management, combined with improved overall reliability, drove annual oil sands cash operating costs below $25 per barrel for the first time in ten years."
The disciplined execution of Suncor's 2017 capital program was focused on bringing Suncor's major growth projects, Fort Hills and Hebron, to first oil, while continuing to invest in the safety, reliability and efficiency of the company's operating assets. The company is proud to report that both Fort Hills and Hebron have been safely brought online and are now producing oil, demonstrating Suncor's continued ability to deliver on its commitments.
The company spent $1.444 billion on capital expenditures during the fourth quarter of 2017, bringing annual spending to $5.822 billion, excluding capitalized interest. 2017 annual spending includes additional expenditures of approximately $150 million related to the facility incident that occurred at Syncrude in the first quarter of 2017. The company expects to receive a total of approximately $140 million in property damage insurance proceeds related to the incident, for net capital expenditures of $5.682 billion for the year. In the fourth quarter of 2017, the company received an interim payment of $76 million of its anticipated property damage insurance proceeds related to the incident, with the remaining payment anticipated to be received in 2018.
The Fort Hills project began producing paraffinic froth-treated bitumen from secondary extraction on January 27, 2018, and the production ramp up to the project's nameplate capacity of 194,000 bbls/d is progressing on schedule. Prior to secondary extraction coming online, the company continued to test the front end of the plant to mitigate the risk associated with the ramp up in 2018, resulting in bitumen froth production. The bitumen froth was further processed by Oil Sands operations and included as SCO production in the period. The total cost of the project to mechanical completion at the end of 2017 was approximately $17.160 billion, excluding the impact of unfavourable foreign exchange. Suncor's estimated capital intensity is approximately $83,000 to mechanical completion and is comparable to the original per flowing barrel cost estimate of $84,000.
During the fourth quarter of 2017, the Fort Hills partners resolved the previously announced commercial dispute and reached an agreement whereby Suncor and Teck Resources Limited (Teck) each acquired an additional working interest in the Fort Hills project from Total E&P Canada Ltd. (Total). Under the terms of the agreement Suncor's share of the project increased to 53.06% and Teck's share increased to 20.89%, for approximate acquisition costs of $300 million and $120 million, respectively, and Total's share decreased to 26.05%. Working interests in the Fort Hills project may be further adjusted in accordance with the terms of the agreement.
In November, Suncor completed the sale of a 49% interest in the East Tank Farm Development to the Fort McKay and Mikisew Cree First Nations for proceeds of $503 million. The mutually beneficial agreement represents the most significant business investment ever made in Canada by First Nations and demonstrates Suncor's commitment to sustainable resource development in partnership with the community.
During the fourth quarter of 2017, first oil at Hebron was achieved ahead of schedule and production continues to ramp up following favourable initial results. At peak, the project is expected to produce more than 30,000 bbls/d, net to Suncor, ramping up over the next several years. The post-sanction cost of the project to first oil was approximately $2.4 billion. Other E&P activity in the fourth quarter included development drilling at White Rose, Hebron, Terra Nova and Hibernia, as well as development work on the West White Rose Project and the Norwegian Oda project.
"With Fort Hills and Hebron both successfully commissioned and now producing oil, the safe and steady ramp up of production is proceeding as planned," said Williams. "We believe the addition of these high-quality assets to our portfolio will return long-term value to shareholders and could not have been achieved without the hard work and dedication of our employees and business partners."
During the fourth quarter of 2017, the company issued US$750 million of 4.00% senior unsecured notes due in 2047. The proceeds were combined with the $503 million received from the sale of a 49% interest in the East Tank Farm Development and were used for the early redemption of US$600 million of 6.05% senior unsecured notes and $700 million of 5.80% Medium Term Notes, both originally due in 2018. The net decrease in long-term debt was executed early to take advantage of favourable market conditions in the fourth quarter of 2017, and is expected to reduce future financing costs and provide ongoing balance sheet flexibility. All debt previously due in 2018 has now been repaid and, apart from US$223 million due in 2019, the company does not have a significant debt repayment due until 2021.
Under the company's normal course issuer bid, which commenced in the second quarter of 2017, the company repurchased $835 million of its own shares for cancellation in the fourth quarter of 2017, bringing the full year total shares purchased and cancelled to $1.413 billion.
Subsequent to the end of the quarter, Suncor's Board of Directors approved a quarterly dividend of $0.36 per common share, which represents an increase of 12.5% over the prior quarter dividend, and also approved a further $2 billion share buyback program currently anticipated to commence after the expiry of the company's current program on May 1, 2018, continuing to demonstrate the company's ability to generate cash flow and commitment to return cash to shareholders.