– China's Delicate Dance with North American Energy Interests

By Chris Faulkner, President and CEO Breitling Oil and Gas

With oil and gas reserves in the U.S., Canada and Mexico becoming ever more accessible through new technologies, the U.S. is now, finally, well-positioned to achieve its dream of energy security. But news of Canada approving China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s (CNOOC) bid to buy Nexen, Inc. sent shivers through many a spine: do China’s increased North American interests pose a threat to the U.S. dream of energy security?

Not China’s first dance with North America
North America has already been a top target for Chinese investment, making more than $17 billion in gas deals with Chinese companies since 2010.

CNOOC already owns 16 percent of MEG Energy, Ltd., in a deal to help develop an oil sands project in northern Alberta, provided development funding for some of Statoil ASA’s Gulf of Mexico leases, and invested in Oklahoma’s Chesapeake Energy for stakes in several U.S. fields. CNOOC is not the only Chinese company with interests in North America: Sinopec, China Investment Corp., and PetroChina have also made deals with Canadian companies.

None of those deals has resulted in any underhanded shenanigans or attempts by China to flex its political power here. In fact, in deals like CNOOC’s with Chesapeake, CNOOC didn’t get an ownership stake and had no control over production. The U.S. deals have specifically excluded secondment (temporary assignment of the partner’s employees) to head off any potential political wrangling. So far, China’s deals have taken the form of alliances designed to gain access to supplies and insight to new technologies and methodologies.

Canada key to U.S. energy security
Since 20 percent of U.S. oil flows from Canada, it’s not unreasonable to be nervous about any potential for China deciding to act against U.S. interests by cutting off some of that supply.

Together, Canada and the U.S. could supply 100 percent of America’s oil and gas by 2030 and actually become a major exporter of natural gas. Add Mexico to the mix and you see the Western Hemisphere becoming a powerful force on the global market that would protect each of the three countries from the vagaries and hostilities of the Middle East and other regions.

Canada happens to be home to the world’s second largest proven oil reserves and is the world’s third largest producer of natural gas. By increasing its own production of oil and gas and importing more from Canada and Mexico, the U.S. can free itself of dependence on oil and gas from hostile nations. The U.S. also enjoys more equitable trading partnerships with Canada and Mexico than it does with countries in the Middle East.

For example, Canada “buys back” about ninety cents of every dollar in goods and services that the U.S. buys from Canada; oil exporting countries in the Middle East buy back less than a third of that amount. The U.S. and Mexico have formed a mutually beneficial relationship, with Mexico exporting most of its oil production to the U.S., then importing 60 percent of its gasoline back from the U.S.

Of course, America’s own vast reserves of oil and natural gas are a huge piece of the North American energy security block. Currently the third biggest oil producer in the world after Saudi Arabia and Russia, the U.S. is home to some of the biggest technically recoverable oil and natural gas reserves in the world.

Challenges to satisfying China’s huge thirst for energy
China is no slouch on the world map of oil and gas reserves. On the contrary, experts believe that China holds the world’s largest shale gas reserves, with more recoverable gas than the U.S. and Canada combined. So, China’s North American interests should be no cause for consternation, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

The problem for China, at least for now and into the near future, is that while it is the world’s fifth largest producer of oil, it is also the world’s largest consumer of energy and doesn’t produce near enough to fulfill its own needs.

China’s need for energy far outstrips its ability to produce for several reasons. Largely reliant on coal for centuries, China is late to the oil and gas production business. It is further hampered by water shortages, poor infrastructure, and perhaps most intractable, its own geography. Most of China’s reserves are buried twice as deep below the surface as those in the U.S., obstructed by difficult and hilly terrain.

Though the government and Chinese oil and gas companies have forged alliances with foreign partners to learn from them and gain access to new technologies, deals that give China access to foreign supplies are and will continue to be critical to keep up with demand.

Uneasy alliance could have unexpected benefits
So, the CNOOC-Nexen deal gives China more of that critical access. The question that remains to be answered is whether this and other North American deals also give China the leverage it needs to control energy markets.

It’s a worry we can’t shrug off as an over-developed sense of nationalism or simple paranoia. Chinese oil companies are not privately owned; they operate with the backing of the Chinese state. The CNOOC-Nexen deal raises red flags because it increases China’s influence over American access to Canada’s reserves.

The U.S. is not without its own leverage, however. For starters, the U.S. has for six decades used the U.S. Navy to protect China’s imports in the South China Sea. The U.S. has been a supportive ally in other ways, helping China reinforce its sovereignty by expanding its domestic gas production and increasing pipeline capacity.

In exchange for access to the deep pockets of China’s state-owned energy companies, U.S. companies have shared new technologies and methods for extracting unconventional resources. Houston-based Baker Hughes, Inc., for example, drilled China’s first horizontal shale oil well last year.

Keeping a strong partnership with old allies and close neighbors will be critical for North American energy security. It remains to been seen whether China will serve only to siphon off our resources or prove to be the unexpected source of support that helps drive the North American energy boom.

Chris Faulkner is the Founder, President and CEO of Breitling Oil and Gas, an independent oil and natural gas company based in Irving, Texas. Founded in 2004, Breitling Oil and Gas employs state-of-the-art petroleum and natural gas exploration and extraction technologies for the development of onshore oil and gas projects.

January 23, 2013