By Nia Williams and Arunima Kumar
(Reuters) - Canadian Natural Resources Ltd said on Thursday its quarterly net profit more than doubled, helped by a surge in oil and gas prices after Russia's invasion of Ukraine stoked global supply concerns.
The Calgary-based company, which is Canada's largest oil and gas producer, outlined plans to funnel rising free cash flow to shareholders once net debt levels fall to C$8 billion.
Canadian Natural president Tim McKay told an earnings call he expects the balance sheet will hit that level by early 2023.
The focus on increasing returns to shareholders echoes moves by other Canadian oil sands producers, although analysts noted some rival companies were targeting more generous returns.
"While a good message, it is not as strong as Cenovus and MEG Energy's recent messages to eventually return 100% of FCF (free cash flow) to shareholders, in our view," Eight Capital analyst Phil Skolnick said in a research note.
Canadian Natural shares were last down 2.2% at C$81.76 on the Toronto Stock Exchange, amid a broad decline in Canadian energy stocks.
Crude prices have hit 14-year highs this year in response to sanctions on Moscow and global fuel demand has recovered to near pre-pandemic levels at a time when oil supplies face massive disruptions due to Russia's invasion.
Canadian Natural said its average realized price for oil rose 77.6% to C$93.54 per barrel in the first three months of 2022. Quarterly production stood at 1.28 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (boepd), marginally up from 1.2 million boepd a year earlier.
The company said net earnings stood at C$3.1 billion ($2.43 billion), or C$2.63 cents per share, for the first quarter ended March 31, from C$1.38 billion, or C$1.16 per share, a year earlier.
During the quarter Canadian Natural also spent C$482 million on two small acquisitions in western Canada, acquiring the remaining 50% working interest in the Pike oil sands lease and buying land at Wembley in the Montney shale play.
($1 = 1.2757 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Arunima Kumar in Bengaluru; Editing by Krishna Chandra Eluri and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)