Should We Be Worried About China's North American Energy Grab?

As you probably recall, toward the end of February China's oil giant CNOOC (NYSE: CEO  ) closed on its largest purchase ever, a $15.1 billion takeover of Canadian oil and gas company Nexen. With that acquisition, CNOOC has now expanded its presence in Canada and the U.S. -- both onshore and in the Gulf of Mexico -- to go along with operations in the South and East China seas, Indonesia, Iraq, Australia, Africa, South America, and the North Sea.

Should we be concerned about the company's movement into many of the world's major producing areas? After all, while many look to China as the primary engine of global economic growth, there are those who view the giant country as a hotbed of corruption and fraud.

CAT's catastrophe
The powers that be at heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) would probably vote for the later label. The company acquired a Chinese mine safety equipment manufacturer last summer, only to discover before year's end the presence of "deliberate multi-year, coordinated accounting misconduct." The uncovered shenanigans necessitated a write-off of most of the value of the $653.4 million deal and forced a paring away of about half of the Caterpillar's expected earnings for the fourth quarter.

That incident appears to be anything but isolated. One observer maintains that in 2010 a whopping 146,000 corruption cases were initiated in China, about 400 per day. Of the 14 that the country's media chose to discuss, the average amount pilfered was 18 million yuan, or nearly $2.9 million.

None of this is to claim corruption and fraud at CNOOC. But the atmosphere from which it has sprung, along with the scope of China's worldwide energy spread, is enough to inspire both economic and geopolitical concerns. It's a trend that isn't especially new. Back in 2009 I wrote a piece for The Motley Fool titled "Will China Buy All the World's Oil?" In it, I predicted, perhaps too conservatively, that "CNOOC's deep pockets just might leave it operating a stone's throw from U.S. shores."

Partnering with Chesapeake
By the very next year, even a gentle toss of a stone became unnecessary when the Chinese company closed a deal with Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK  ) that gave it a one-third interest in the Oklahoma City company's 600,000 Eagle Ford acres. It also owns an identical stake in Chesapeake's 800,000 acres in the Niobrara play in Colorado and Wyoming. In addition, the company owns several blocks in Alaska. Offshore, the Nexen purchase included acreage in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.

In Canada, the company owns a 12.39% in MEG Energy, a pure play Canadian company that produces primarily bitumen in Northern Alberta. It also has a 60% interest in Northern Cross, a Calgary-based producer. In 2011 it spent $2 billion to buy Opti Canada. Along with additional properties in Canada, the Gulf, and the Middle East, Nexen also brought with it producing properties in the North Sea and offshore Nigeria.

Heading for cold country
Now, with its hooks in much of the oil-producing hot sports, the Chinese government and its oil industry -- including the likes of CNOOC, PetroChina (NYSE: PTR  ) , and China Petroleum and Chemical Corp., or Sinopec (NYSE: SNP  ) -- is attempting to court tiny Iceland. Why? Because, pun unintended, the Arctic may become the next hot spot for oil, gas, and minerals production.

Indeed, as was stated in a Christian Science Monitor article earlier this week, "In fact, say Chinese Arctic experts and foreign observers, the attention that Beijing is paying to a minnow state with a population 5,000 times smaller than its own is all part of China's bid to stretch its influence into the Arctic as part of a global vision." In the process, Chinese authorities are terming their country a "near Arctic nation." Never mind that the country sits at least 1,000 miles from the Arctic Circle.

China is also lobbying to be dubbed a permanent observer of the Arctic Council, a group that will meet next month in Tromso, Norway. However, the U.S. and Canada are likely to use their veto power to thwart that ploy. But given China's dogged determination to become a progressively bigger energy player, such a roadblock could turn out to be very temporary.

Perhaps even more meaningful will be President Obama's impending decision on whether to approve TransCanada's (NYSE: TRP  ) proposed Keystone XL pipeline. It's likely that, with another negative decision from the president, Canada will seek to become an even closer pal of China's than is already the case.

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