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A woman walks past a poster showing an offshore work platform from the China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) next to its headquarters building in Beijing, December 10, 2012. (JASON LEE/REUTERS)
A woman walks past a poster showing an offshore work platform from the China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) next to its headquarters building in Beijing, December 10, 2012. (JASON LEE/REUTERS)

A fence around the oil sands box Add to ...

The CNOOC-Nexen deal was approved, though with a fence around the oil sands box that prevents further acquisitions by state-owned enterprises (SOEs). The restriction is questionable free-market meddling, pitting nationalism against capitalism in an inside-looking-in debate that’s typically Canadian. But it’s worth looking from the inside out to recognize that there is implicit hubris to this restriction.

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Notionally, this new leash on SOEs is supposed to protect Canada against a Black-Friday-type buying binge of the oil sands. Where does this preconceived belief come from? Does China really need Canada’s oil as much as we think they do? The un-debated assumption here is that the fast-growing dragon will need an incalculably large quantity of oil going forward, ergo China’s SOEs will trip over each other to buy up Canada’s oil industry. Yet the numbers and trends relating to Chinese oil consumption don’t necessarily support this conjecture.

Growth in China’s oil consumption has decelerated considerably relative to the pre-2008 oil-guzzling era. In fact, its rate of growth has been cut in half. The combination of an economy that has shed a couple points of GDP, and a weakening correlation between Chinese GDP and oil demand – otherwise known as oil intensity – challenges the notion that the go-forward Chinese thirst for oil is out-of-control. And it tests the notion that Canada is vital to China’s long-term oil supply plan.

During the steroidal growth years, between 2002 and 2005, China’s oil consumption was ballooning by an average of 500,000 B/d per year, with high correlation to an economy that was expanding at over 10 per cent per year. In this regard, the country’s oil intensity was tracking a steady 0.75, which meant that for each percentage of growth in annual GDP, oil demand grew by 0.75 per cent (for example, 10 per cent GDP growth implied 7.5 per cent growth in oil consumption). That high level of intensity, which is typical of countries in their early and aggressive stages of industrialization, had been constant since 1990.

There is now enough data gathered over the past few years to see that China’s oil intensity has dropped to 0.55, which means its oil growth is only half as fast as its economic growth. And this link will ease further, as it does for all countries that mature into advanced stages of economic development. Fuel diversification and more efficient consumption practices, often driven by government policy, can quickly alter the growth profile. While many find this inevitable trend of moderating growth hard to believe for China, the data shows that the country’s energy progression is unremarkable when compared against every developed, western nation that has undergone the same pattern of evolution.

We’re not saying Chinese oil consumption won’t grow; of course it will. But the volume growth over the course of the next several years is likely to drop to a range between 200,000 and 300,000 bpd per year.

Growth in excess of 200,000 bpd every year still raises eyebrows, but we are in an age where new drilling and completion technologies can accommodate such numbers. For example, by itself, North Dakota’s annual capacity expansion is currently tracking 200,000 bpd. We would all be naïve to believe that this technology is not going to proliferate to other regions of the world where Chinese SOEs are active, and even into China itself, which already ranks as the fourth largest producer of oil globally. If the United States is gloating about a road map to energy self-sufficiency today, why wouldn’t we think China may also be in a position to do so in the years to come?

It’s nice to think the Canadian oil sands are so coveted that the rest of the world is beating the doors down in Calgary office towers to buy them up. Putting restrictions on oil sands ownership sends the wrong signal – not to China or other growth markets, but to Canadians who think they are the only ones who hold an ace in a world where demand is moderating and supply is growing.

 
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