Lignol and Suncor Sign Cellulosic Ethanol Project Development Agreement; Negotiating a JV

Jose Michael

Canada-based companies Lignol Energy Corporation (LEC) and Suncor Energy Products Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Suncor Energy Inc., are extending their earlier announced collaboration on a US Department of Energy (DOE)-funded commercial demonstration cellulosic ethanol facility (earlier post) with a new cellulosic ethanol project development agreement.

Suncor will assist Lignol with certain preliminary development work for the commercial demonstration facility to be located in Grand Junction, Colorado. The two will also negotiate a comprehensive joint venture arrangement to progress the development of Lignol’s technology from the pilot plant stage to the commercial demonstration plant stage through to the ultimate commercial deployment of the technology.

Although neither has an obligation to enter the joint venture, they hope to complete it on or before 15 January 2009. The JV would include a series of gated and milestone-driven investments by Suncor towards the commercial demonstration cellulosic ethanol facility and the comprehensive terms and conditions governing the structure and the respective commercial interests of the Parties. Suncor would have a controlling interest in the JV.

Lignol uses a modified solvent-based pre-treatment technology based on original ‘Alcell’ biorefining technology developed by a former affiliate of General Electric (GE), and then further developed and commercialized for wood-pulp applications by a subsidiary of Repap Enterprises Inc. The full Lignol production process for cellulosic ethanol consists of pre-treatment, hydrolysis and fermentation.

Lignol has completed construction of its industrial-scale biorefinery pilot plant in Burnaby, B.C. and is currently completing a staged plant commissioning process. Once fully commissioned, Lignol will move ahead with scheduled trials to optimize current engineering designs for commercial-scale plants.

Lignol will also accelerate work underway with companies seeking to evaluate their leading-edge enzymes and novel organisms in an industrial setting. The facility is expected to have a production capacity of 100,000 liters (26,000 gallons US) of ethanol per year.

Suncor cuts capex. Suncor is a leading company in Canada’s oil sands industry. Its board just approved a modified C$6 billion capital spending plan for 2009, reducing targeted spending by more than one-third, due to the current financial market conditions. Approximately $3.6 billion in spending, or about 60% of the total, is targeted to Suncor’s Voyageur oil sands growth strategy.

Suncor’s 2009 plan maintains spending and construction timelines for the third and fourth stages of the company’s Firebag in-situ oil sands operations, part of the $20.6 billion Voyageur strategy. Completion of Firebag stages 3 and 4 (in 2009 and 2010, respectively) is expected to provide increases in bitumen production and future cash flow.

In the near-term, Suncor expects to scale down spending and the pace of construction on the company’s planned Voyageur upgrader, delaying targeted completion by approximately one year. Stages five and six of Firebag in-situ operations are expected to proceed but, as they are at relatively early phases of development, spending and scheduling plans are flexible to respond to market conditions.

the company says that it remains committed to expanding to oil sands production of 550,000 barrels per day.

In addition to Voyageur program investment, Suncor plans 2009 capital spending of $2.4 billion to support its base business. Approximately $1.7 billion is targeted for the company’s oil sands operations, including new extraction facilities and various projects intended to improve the reliability and productivity of oil sands assets. Continuing investments in emission control equipment are also slated for 2009.

In Suncor’s natural gas operations, plans call for spending of approximately $300 million on exploration and production in 2009. In the company’s refining and marketing operations, approximately $400 million in capital is slated for planned maintenance and environmental improvements.

Suncor expects similar levels of company-wide capital spending through 2012. However, some projects, including components of Suncor’s planned in-situ expansion, are subject to regulatory approval and the outcome may impact project details and related budgets.

Suncor’s 2009 capital spending plan is expected to be financed through undrawn credit facilities and cash flow from operations.

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