NDP urges Ottawa to clarify 'net benefit' in Nexen deal

Federal Industry Minister Christian Paradis is defending Canada's review investement process after the New Democrats urged the federal government for greater transparency as Ottawa begins its review of China National Offshore Oil Co.'s $15.1-billion deal to buy Calgary-based Nexen Inc.

Misspeak by junior finance minister Ted Menzies sows further confusion

Peter Julian, NDP energy and natural resources critic, is calling for greater transparency as Ottawa begins its review of China National Offshore Oil Co.'s $15.1-billion deal to buy Calgary-based Nexen Inc. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Federal Industry Minister Christian Paradis is defending Canada's review investment process after the New Democrats urged the the federal government to provide greater transparency in their review of China National Offshore Oil Corp.'s (CNOOC) $15.1-billion deal to buy Calgary-based Nexen Inc.

NDP MPs Peter Julian and Helene Leblanc called a press conference Thursday morning to outline their concerns with the review that is now underway under the Canada Investment Act.

Julian, the NDP energy and natural resources critic, said "we are looking for transparency and a real process that shows what the net benefit is for Canada."

The New Democrats also raised questions surrounding the lobbying activities of Michael Coates and Elizabeth Roscoe, who have been lobbying the prime minister's office (PMO) and other federal departments on CNOOC's behalf despite their ties to the Conservatives.

The federal lobbying registry shows both Roscoe and Coates lobbied PMO and other federal departments on July 22, on the eve of the CNOOC-Nexen deal first being announcement.

Coates is a veteran campaign hand to Stephen Harper, while Roscoe was part of Harper's small five-member transition team in 2006.

Paradis said, he will be taking the time required to "to carefully examine CNOOC’s proposed acquisition of Nexen Inc. and determine whether it is likely to be of net benefit to Canada," in a statement issued immediately following the NDP press conference.

Defining 'net benefit'

According to Julian, the federal government never followed up on its promise to clarify the rules surrounding the net benefit test after it rejected the Australian miner BHP Billiton Ltd.'s $39-billion bid for Potash Corp. nearly two years ago.

"We don't have clear rules, we don't have a clear process," said the NDP's energy and natural resources critic.

The issue became more confusing on Thursday when CBC News asked Minister of State for Finance Ted Menzies, who was speaking on a teleconference call from Moscow where he is attending meetings ahead of next week's APEC summit, to define what 'net benefit' is.

Menzies said, "net benefit makes sure that our resource sector will be well looked after. To me, that’s net benefit, to make sure that it’s treated in the same way that are our Canadian companies."

"And indeed, many of the companies that are operating in the oil and gas sector right now are not Canadian companies so we make sure that they treat the environment with respect, make sure that they do due diligence and look after our environment as they’re doing it," Menzies said.  

But a spokesperson for Menzies later told CBC News, the minister thought the question was about "responsible resource development."

"He was offering his views on how the natural resources sector should operate in Canada," Menzies spokesperson said.

Leblanc, the NDP's industry critic who sits as a member on the commons industry committee, said the New Democrats have requested a review of the Canada Investment Act.

Under section 20 of the act, the minister has six factors to take into consideration when trying to determine if an investment is likely to be of net benefit to Canada. Paradis said, "the review process under the act is rigorous, involving consultations with affected provinces/territories and other government departments."

Last week, during his annual tour of Canada's North, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the federal government would take into account the "best long-term interests of the Canadian economy, not just net benefit of Canada."

Paradis pointed to "targeted improvements" to the legislation saying the changes "provide greater transparency to the public, more flexibility in enforcement and an alternative to costly and time-consuming litigation."

In May, the federal government raised to $1 billion the threshold of foreign money that can go into a Canadian company before the investment is reviewed, but did not clarify the rules surrounding net benefit.

The review will take 45 days, but could be extended by another 30 days if necessary.

If successful, the CNOOC - Nexen deal would be China's largest-ever overseas acquisition.

Julian would not say if the NDP had concerns with a Chinese state-owned company having an even greater stake in Canada's oil and gas sector.

In July, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer said the U.S. ought to block the deal unless China lives up to promises it has already made to open its market to U.S. companies.

Whether mutual reciprocity factors into Ottawa's decision in the CNOOC - Nexen deal remains to be seen.