Imperial Oil Limited (TSX:IMO)(NYSE:IMO) is moving forward with a multibillion dollar oil sands expansion ahead of schedule, a project with an $8.9 billion price tag. The development is good news for energy company investors, who have seen stocks in the sector hit hard this year by weak crude prices.

The oil company, whose majority is owned by Exxon Mobil, said Tuesday that all three production units at its Kearl project in northern Alberta are now operational, doubling capacity at the 110,000 barrel-per-day mine. Analysts didn’t expect the project to come online until later this summer, but the slowdown in the sector has kept project costs in line, and labour costs have been lower this year.

In addition, oil sands producers have benefited in recent months from strengthening prices for Western Canada Select heavy crude, with strong demand helping to narrow the discount against North American benchmark crude.

Imperial Oil has a history of taking on large projects in challenging times. During the global financial downturn in 2009, the oil company moved forward with the initial construction of Kearl, while other industry players reduced their oil sands investments.

Kearl’s first phase begun production in 2013, but a series of operational problems have prevented the project from reaching full capacity. In the first quarter it pumped an average 95,000 barrels a day out of a capacity of 110,000 barrels.

In April Imperial posted a first-quarter profit of $421 million, down 55% from the previous year mainly due to the decline in global crude prices, and partially offset by a strong operating performance. Earnings per share at $0.50 beat analyst estimates of $0.40. Revenue of $6.2 billion was down from $9.2 billion last year and fell short of estimates of $6.8 billion. Gross production averaged 333,000 gross oil-equivalent barrels per day in Q1, up 3,000 barrels from the first quarter of 2014.

Unlike many of its peers, Imperial has not resorted to layoffs during the downturn. But CEO Rich Kruger told shareholders the company is being more choosy about where it’s spending its capital, is scrutinizing expenses, and is leaning on suppliers and contractors to improve costs and productivity.

Energy stocks will likely not be “flavour of the month” for a while as crude prices slowly recover. But Imperial Oil’s optimism is showing the way forward, making the stock a suitable purchase for long-term investors looking for a leader in the energy sector.

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