Public opinion 'crystallizing' against Nexen deal, NDP says

Ottawa — Reuters

NDP MP Peter Julian speaks length on the federal budget in the House of Commons on April 3, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The NDP urged the federal government on Tuesday not to rubber-stamp a bid by China’s CNOOC Ltd. to buy oil company Nexen Inc. without public consultations, saying opinion had hardened against the deal.

Peter Julian, the energy critic for the party, which forms the official opposition in the House of Commons, said the party had not yet formally decided whether to oppose the $15.1-billion (U.S.) takeover bid even though its leader, Thomas Mulcair, said last month he had “grave concerns” about it.

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“Before the government moves to rubber-stamp [the deal], consult the public,” Mr. Julian told the House.

“What we’re finding is public opinion is crystallizing around this deal with more and more concerns,” he told reporters in an earlier news conference, adding that the NDP would make its stance known shortly.

Mr. Julian said that even in his Vancouver district, where oil industry affairs are usually of little interest, the Nexen deal has been the No. 1 issue for his constituents.

The most recent poll showed 69 per cent of Canadians oppose the deal.

Parliament began debating an NDP motion presented on Tuesday demanding the government hold public consultations on the CNOOC-Nexen deal before deciding whether to approve it. The motion won the support of the Liberal Party but is unlikely to pass given the Conservative majority.

The motion also calls for public hearings into the issue of foreign ownership in the Canadian energy sector, particularly regarding acquisitions by foreign state-owned enterprises.

Under Canadian law, any foreign investment worth more than $330-million (Canadian) faces a review by the federal Industry Minister to determine whether it is of net benefit to Canada.

As well as its consultation demands, the NDP motion seeks to clarify the concept of “net benefit,” which critics complain is very vague and leaves the government open to lobbying by political interests.

Nexen has a substantial interest in the oil sands of northern Alberta, one of the world’s biggest crude reserves, and the possibility of a state-owned Chinese firm extending its foothold in the oil sands has sparked a huge debate in Canada over how to handle such proposals. The debate pits fears about national security and control of strategic resources against the need for foreign capital.

The NDP is clearly suspicious of the deal.

“Who names CNOOC’s chair?...It is named by the Politburo. It is confirmed by the Central Committee [of the Communist Party of China]. That I think indicates it is very much a state-owned entity and not independent,” Mr. Julian said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised a policy framework to clarify the government’s position on foreign investment in the oil sector, particularly by state-owned investors.

“There will be a policy statement surrounding these issues and that will provide greater clarity ... We expect it around the time of the Nexen decision,” Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said in Toronto on Tuesday.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis, in charge of reviewing the deal, has had a 45-day period in which to make a decision. That expires on Oct 12, but the government is likely to extend it for another 30 days.