Chinese target Canada’s tar sands oil with proposed purchase of Nexen

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A top Chinese oil company is confident its proposed $15.1 billion purchase of Nexen, a Canadian firm, won’t turn into another awkward Unocal debacle, which is still ever-so fresh in their memory.

After the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation failed on an attempted hostile takeover of California’s Unocal in 2005, CNOOC was shamed away from doing business in America. Washington lawmakers had expressed concerns that the deal could create national security problems, forcing CNOOC to back out of the deal.

But CNOOC’s rocky relationship with the U.S. Congress hasn’t stopped the state-owned company from realizing its dream of becoming a big player in North American oil. It already owns minority stakes in Canadian firms, and if the proposed deal goes through for Nexen, it will own a majority stake in the Calgary, Alberta-based company.

“This is a friendly transaction, and that’s different from 2005,” a source close to CNOOC said in an interview. “Both companies want to see this deal happen, and both are working together to get the necessary regulatory approvals. That’s far different from the previous (Unocal) deal.”

The Canadian government still has to approve the deal, but the prospects look better north of the border than they did seven years ago in Washington.

Canada’s approval process is also expected to be much quicker than that of the U.S., which has dragged its feet on construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The Canadian government will consider the impact the aquisition would have on areas such as job creation, taxes, and research and development.

“We’re going to take a good look at it,” Hon. Rob Merrifield, who represents Yellowhead in Alberta for the Canadian Parliament, said during a trip to Washington to speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

This may be just the beginning of a number of business deals between Canada and China. “We’re going to want more trade with China,” Mr. Merrifield added.

Selling Nexen to China presents several benefits for Canada. First, it’s hard to argue with the 60 percent premium above market value that investors will get paid at the sale price of $27.50 per share.

Canada would also like to see more drilling to take advantage of the tar sands oil, and CNOOC has more resources than Nexen to pull that off. CNOOC, with a market capitalization of $88 billion, is a much bigger company than Nexen at $13 billion — which means it can afford to produce more oil. More drilling in western Canada would likely mean more jobs and tax revenue for the country.

“They have more money to put behind it,” said the source close to CNOOC. “One of the real selling points of the deal in Canada has been that CNOOC has greater financial resources to bring to Nexen’s current Canadian assets that would in the long term result in greater production from Nexen’s current portfolio.”

Some wonder whether this sale will impact production of the stalled Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S.

When it comes to Keystone, business groups and Republican lawmakers have long warned that if the U.S. waits too long to approve the project, Canada will change its mind and ship the oil to China, where energy demand has generally been growing. That would also mean a lost opportunity for the U.S. to lower domestic energy prices and reduce its dependence on overseas oil.

China’s taking up all of the oil sands,” Rep. Lee Terry, the Nebraska Republican who has been leading the charge to approve Keystone, told “Fox and Friends” on Saturday.

Mr. Merrifield seemed to pressure Keystone blockers in the U.S., warning the oil could be shipped elsewhere through other pipelines in Canada.

He did indicate Canada would like to see the U.S. get involved in the oil sands through Keystone. “But I can tell you we can work as aggressively as we can with the ones going west, out to the Asian market,” he said. “It will be up to the Americans what happens with the ones going south.”

“We’re going to want more trade with China,” he added.

But Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and former Canadian defense minister, has been assured the Chinese won’t deliberately bypass the U.S. to sell the oil in China.

CNOOC competes with other Chinese oil companies, so it won’t simply bring it back home at a lower price, if it can make more money selling to other parts of the world, including the U.S.

“They will function on a commercial basis,” Mr. Beatty said. “They are in competition with other Chinese oil companies.”

If anything, this may heat up the need for Keystone. With more oil being produced, it could create a bottleneck on the Canada-U.S. boarder that needs to be relieved with a big pipeline, said Bev Dahlby, a distinguished fellow in tax and economic growth at the University of Calgary.

“It makes the need for Keystone even greater,” he said.

The sale of Nexen, which operates in part in western Canada, would reinforce the global significance of the controversial tar sands oil.

“It means the oil sands are attractive for global investors,” Mr. Beatty explained. “The fact the Chinese, Americans and others are looking at those resources really attests to that. It underscores the fact that this is an exceptional resource and others are interested in it.”

Regardless of whether the tar sands oil is dangerous for the environment, Mr. Beatty said, it can’t be any worse than relying on oil from hostile Middle Eastern nations.

“What other countries does the U.S. buy oil from that have stable democracies?” he asked. “Canada is the United State’s best friend, whether they know it or not.”

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