China's Nexen buy is Canada's elephant in the oil patch

If CNOOC's $15.1 billion offer for Nexen goes through, it's going to be a lot harder to ignore the Chinese elephant standing in the middle of northern Alberta

There is a scene in the original Wall Street movie when the young stockbroker Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, wins an account from the rich capitalist Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas. After Gekko agrees to open an account with Fox, the latter hangs up the phone and tells his trading buddy, in fist pumping excitement, that he has just "bagged the elephant."

That’s the situation Stephen Harper's Conservative government now finds itself in. After back and forth meetings with China, and a recent visit this February extolling the virtues of investing here, the Prime Minister just received the same phone call.

But this time, the elephant has come with a $15.1 billion dollar takeover bid for Nexen, one of Canada’s largest energy companies. Nexen holds strategic oil assets all over the world including a sizable portion of Alberta’s oilsands.

The problem with this elephant is that we don’t know much about it. We know that it is big and that it’s growing, but we don’t even know if it’s housetrained, or even friendly.

What we do know is that it is not interested in the free market "greed is good" philosophy of the movie.

This elephant — the China National Offshore Oil Company or CNOOC — is a direct representative of the Chinese government. Securing oil for that government, and by extension the Chinese people, is its only priority.

And like the impossibility of eating just one peanut, this elephant is hungry. If this deal is approved, the elephant is likely to want to gobble another four or five peanuts of similar size. All of a sudden, it would be a lot harder to ignore the elephant standing in the middle of Canada's oil patch.

Ottawa finds itself in the difficult position of trying to figure out how exactly Canada should position itself against a foreign government that wants to buy more of our resources for its own people and not the free market.

If an elephant is able to eat one peanut, he'll likely want a few more, Scott Peterson writes. (Imelda Medina/Reuters)

It comes down to two choices: does Canada just go along with whatever China wants to buy for the short term benefit of oil company shareholders, or does the government take a more strategic response by clarifying foreign investment rules. This is what former Industry Minister Tony Clement promised to do back in 2010 when he killed the $39 billion dollar BHP-Billiton bid for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan.

While we wait for clarification, Canada has no strategy, and this offer from China comes at a very strategic time. That makes us vulnerable because we have no comprehensive foreign investment policy and we also have no national energy policy. That puts us in the hands of the oil companies who are quite happy without any strategy or policy telling them what to do.

But here is the real vulnerability. Canada is on the cusp of building two massive pipelines to sell the most unrefined, and cheapest, product we have: bitumen. It is so thick it has to be thinned with solvent just to get it through the pipes.

We haven’t built a new refinery in this country in almost thirty years. If these pipes get approved, which Ottawa wants badly, Canada won’t have to build refineries for a long time — if ever.

That’s great news for China and for Texas, two places that are more than happy to take our cheap bitumen and build their own refineries and create high-tech jobs — a secondary industry Canada badly needs.

Canadians, meanwhile, will cement our reputation as hewers of wood and drawers of water. If that keeps up, it’s hard to see how Canada will become an "energy superpower" as Ottawa has promised. 

Other countries have been much more protective of their resources, and have been leery of China and its reputation on issues like human rights, the environment, its closed economy, and its lack of respect for intellectual property.

In 2005 when CNOOC tried to take over Unocal Corp in the U.S. for $18.5 billion, there was a firestorm from Washington that shut the deal down. There was another firestorm this year when Chinese telecom company, Huawei, tried to build a broadband network in Australia. Australia nixed that deal because it feared China could use the network to spy on them.

CNOOC, headed up by chairman Fu Cheng Yu, was previously rebuffed in an attempted takeover of U.S. oil company Unocal. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

So, what does Canada do when China comes calling? In typical Canadian fashion, we issue a study. Not only that, we issue a joint study with the Chinese government.

It was released quietly last week by the Department of Foreign Affairs with a mouthful of a name — the "Canada – China Economic Complementaries Study."

Its harshest criticism of the Chinese government was calling Beijing's "application of tariffs" and its lack of "intellectual property rights" an "impediment to trade." Not exactly a rousing or thorough critique of a foreign government with a spotty reputation in both areas.

On the other hand, the state-controlled China Daily called the same study the "key to the future prosperity of Canadians."

That wording speaks volumes about the relationship between the two countries. If the deal goes through, maybe we should get used to having our opinions sent to us from Beijing.

To put it another way, if we go forward without any strategy or policy, we better get used to lying around like peanuts on a circus floor.