France bids Vermilion Energy adieu in new climate-change bill

The traditional 20th anniversary present is china but Canada’s Vermilion Energy Inc. is getting quite a different gift for its second decade as a light-oil producer in France: a divorce petition with an implementation date of 2040.

France imports 99 per cent of the oil it consumes, but the Calgary-based company produces three-quarters of the other 1 per cent. It thus stands to be more affected than most by a draft climate-change bill that could be law by year-end.

The bill would make France the first country in the world to ban all domestic hydrocarbon production.

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In an interview at his Calgary office, Vermilion chief executive Tony Marino is taking the setback in stride, although the company produces about 11,400 barrels of oil a day in France, roughly 16 per cent of its overall output.

It even held its investors’ meeting in Paris last spring to mark the 20th anniversary.

“We would have preferred to have an open-ended industry with no long-term end point. Perhaps policy will change over the next 23 years,” he said diplomatically, adding the draft bill at least provides some “certainty” over the long term.

Vermilion is an oddity in the Canadian oil patch, a medium-sized company that produces 42 per cent of its oil and gas in Canada but gets the rest from onshore and offshore wells in Australia, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Ireland and the United States. More recently, it has added exploration lands in Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia.

The model has advantages in that oil and gas prices have generally been higher outside of North America in recent years. But there are negatives as well, such as delays in receiving drilling permits in the Netherlands this year that forced Vermilion to choke back its natural gas field development plans there.

Greg Pardy, who covers the company for RBC Dominion Securities, said Vermilion’s “ace in the hole” is that it makes more money on an operating basis than its peers because of that exposure to European oil and natural gas prices.

He added it has lower average debt-to-cash-flow ratios and, unlike many other Canadian energy companies, Vermilion has never cut its common share dividend.

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“Vermilion … chases conventional plays, with a focus on regional diversification and well workovers, optimizations, infill drilling and secondary recovery,” TD Securities analyst Menno Hulshof said. He praised the company’s skills at navigating jurisdictions with “nuanced” regulatory frameworks.

Vermilion’s international reputation is being boosted by a deal through which it will replace supermajor Royal Dutch Shell PLC as operator of the two-year-old Corrib natural gas project off Ireland’s northwest coast. The project accounts for 95 per cent of Ireland’s natural gas production and supplies 60 per cent of its demand, with the rest imported.

In July, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board announced it would buy Shell’s 45-per-cent interest in Corrib for about $1.4-billion.

Vermilion, partnering with the Toronto-based investment fund for the first time, would then buy a 1.5-per-cent stake to add to its existing 18.5 per cent and take over as operator. Norway’s Statoil ASA will continue to own the rest if the deal closes as expected early next year.

Mr. Marino said the deal underlines basic philosophy espoused by Vermilion since it was founded in 1994, including feeling “more comfortable” when in control of decisions affecting costs and operating strategy at each of its far-flung assets.

In Europe, working effectively means doing what you can to be part of a sustainable economy, said Mr. Marino, pointing out the company won an French environmental award in 2013 for its project to supply waste heat from oil operations to warm Bordeaux region tomato greenhouses.

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He said Vermilion is also working with partners to try to use heat from its operations in southern France for social housing. And it’s exploring plans in the Netherlands to repurpose wellbores near urban areas for geothermal heating of buildings.

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