Warren Buffett Stake in Suncor Energy, Much More Than It Seems

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Suncor Energy Inc. (NYSE: SU) traded higher on Thursday after the 13F filing from Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-B) showed this company as a new position in the full Berkshire Hathaway equity portfolio. We would first point out that this is a very unusual stake for Team Buffett to be interested in on the surface. That being said, a small history lesson might explain why this is not out of the norm. We cannot help but think that there is a whole lot more to this stake than meets the eye.

You have to go back a few years when Warren Buffett and his other “wealthy” friend Bill Gates went up to Canada to visit the Canadian oil sands. Now you have to think that Buffett acquired the rail giant BNSF. While no strong commitment was made to the oil sands project, that pesky issue of the Keystone Pipeline remains in the air, and BNSF is pulling on the choo-choo whistle all the way to the bank. Without a pipeline in place, BNSF gets to transport trainloads and trainloads of crude oil.

So again, there seems to be more than meets the eye here in this new position in Suncor Energy Inc. (NYSE: SU). BNSF gets to benefit here, but the position could be twofold: 1) it could merely be the start of a hedge in case the pipeline is built or 2) it could be the start of a serious add-on for BNSF, whether or not a pipeline deal ever really happens.

If you look at the About Us on Suncor’s website, it gets even more spelled out than this: “Our oil sands operations are the focus of Suncor’s business. We were the first company to develop the oil sands, creating an industry that is now a key contributor to Canada’s prosperity. … Suncor holds one of the largest positions in the oil sands.”

Whatever the logic is here, it seems that a stake of over a half-billion dollars should be getting more attention than it is. Buffett is formally declaring this stake in the Canadian oil sands. We would not be surprised at all if this is just the start of something larger.

The stake was listed as 17,769,457 shares, which was worth some $524 million as of June 30. The last day of June was the 28th, and shares closed at $29.49 that day. With shares up at $33 now after the Berkshire Hathaway news, that stake would now be worth around $586 million. Suncor Energy’s market cap is now more than $49.5 billion, and it trades about 4.2 million shares per day.

Now here is where this gets really interesting. Buffett lists his international holdings that trade in the U.S. on the primary markets. He is not obligated to show what exactly is owned outside the United States, and that would pertain to other Canadian oil sands projects. If Buffett and Gates were interested in oil sands before, the vote is being cast by Buffett with real money here.

Before you think we are making a mountain out of a mole hill here, just remember that even if the oil sands is lower in quality and more expensive to extract, transport and refine, the Alberta Energy site shows that Alberta’s oil sands are the third-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. It also shows that production is expected to increase from 1.31 million barrels per day back in 2008 to 3 million barrels per day in 2018.

Warren Buffett’s commitment of $500 million or so may just be the start of something larger. Maybe even much, much, much larger.