Whose Locking up Canadian Oil?

Posted by Peter Krauth

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By Failing to Lock Up Canadian Oil Supplies, U.S. Exposes National Energy Plan Flaws

Asia to Canada: Let’s Make a Deal

Critics have blasted U.S. leaders and U.S. oil companies for not locking up as much of Canada’s vast supply of reliable oil as possible. By failing to do so, the United States essentially opened the door for China and other Asian nations, which have been ardently courting Canada.

Just last September, we saw PetroChina Co. Ltd. (NYSE ADR: PTR) pay Athabasca Oil Sands Corp. (PINK: ATHOF) $1.9 billion in cash for a 60% stake in two undeveloped Canadian oil sands projects. It was PetroChina’s biggest acquisition in North America.

In October, state-owned Korea National Oil Co. (KNOC) snatched Canada’s Harvest Energy Trust for $1.8 billion in cash, and the assumption of more than $2 billion in debt – meaning the deal was done at a hefty premium to its market value. KNOC hopes to ship Alberta oil sands to refineries in South Korea.  That move not only helped concretize that Asian nation’s plan to quadruple production from current levels to 300,000 barrels daily by 2012, it also enabled it to move assets out of depreciating greenbacks and into appreciating oil.

Just two weeks ago, the China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (NYSE ADR: SNP), also known as Sinopec, offered $4.6 billlion for a minority stake in the Syncrude Canada Ltd. oil sands plant.  This attempted deal is causing waves, at least in Canada. 

Sinopec is Asia’s biggest refiner, with an expanding capacity to process heavy oil, the kind Syncrude produces before upgrading to synthetic crude.  Syncrude is the world’s largest producer of light sweet crude oil from oil sands.

The deal would give Sinopec a veto over any decision for Syncrude to invest in upgrading more oil in Alberta.  That province would clearly prefer to see upgrading done at home, since bitumen processing creates jobs and tax revenue.  This is the first time a Chinese state-owned enterprise is taking on a share in a major oil producer, so the Canadian government could soon be placing its foreign-investment-review policies under a powerful microscope.

Remember, too, that because of its centralized decision-making, China’s government can act much more quickly, and without having to fear any public-opinion backlash. In the past, China also hasn’t had to worry much about environmental groups or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – just ask Tibetan protestors.

Another advantage Asian culture has in the realm of planning is its tendency to take a much longer view of major issues. For example, Chinese planners don’t just consider the next quarter or the next year, they will look decades – or even generations – into the future, and will plan accordingly. It’s a lesson Western corporate leaders would do well to observe, and perhaps even copy.

Considering the massive modernization most of Asia is undergoing, you can continue to expect an aggressive acquisition stance to be the norm for some time. 

After years of developing nations accumulating western fiat currencies through exports, we’re now witnessing a massive generational transfer of wealth from West to East.

Obama’s Flip Flop

This is sure to remain a hot issue.  But I believe that President Obama’s approach may well be an excuse to favor homegrown U.S. businesses with a less obvious “Buy American” policy.  Here’s what I mean.

I find it particularly interesting that President Obama recently did a complete 180-degree turnabout on his energy policy by opening parts of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling.

Money Morning Chief Investment Strategist Keith Fitz-Gerald attributes the change to an administration realization that a weakening greenback makes it difficult for America to accumulate oil assets outside U.S. borders. I think Fitz-Gerald is right.

So in one fell swoop, the new president can address multiple issues with this single move.  U.S. oil producers must be ecstatic to now be able to explore, at home, over vast areas, and using current technologies.  The lure of some attractive discoveries is strong.  At the same time, the president can now say that he’s dealing with the issue of energy security, since anything newly discovered will be located inside U.S. borders.

More importantly, though, President Obama’s cap-and-trade scheme may be nothing more than an insidious trap for foreign-energy producers, and an effortless windfall for American producers and distributors.  Under such a system, one can imagine a scenario where oil exporters would be required to have a quota allowance to sell into the U.S. market to “comply with environmental laws,” where quota could only be bought from an American concern.  And voilà, a large chunk of the profits end up at home here in the United States, while the exporter’s margins run thin.

It’s true that developing new technologies to produce oil from oil sands more cleanly would counter some of this problem, but that takes years of research and serious funding.  Meanwhile it’s a pretty safe bet even more of those assets will continue to migrate into Asian hands.

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