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Patrick Daniel, president and CEO of Enbridge.

Chinese oil executives are growing frustrated with regulatory delays in plans for the Northern Gateway pipeline, even as interest in Canadian oil and gas surges in the energy-hungry country, the head of Enbridge Inc. says.

Enbridge chief executive officer Pat Daniel said despite keen interest here in Canadian oil and gas reserves, this seemingly made-in-heaven match is threatened by delays in the company's efforts to establish a $5.5-billion, 1,177-kilometre pipeline to carry bitumen from Alberta's oil sands to a deep sea port at Kitimat, B.C., for shipping to Asian markets.

"They're frustrated, as we are, in the length of time it takes," Mr. Daniel said in an interview on the sidelines of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's mission to China. "They're very anxious to diversify their supply, they're very dependent on the Middle East for crude.

"[Canada]seems like the perfect match that should last a long time, but if you don't move it along, people do lose interest. We don't have forever," he continued. "The fundamentals in the business can change and you must take advantage of opportunities if and when they present themselves."

Mr. Daniel said they hope to have approvals completed within two years and construction in three, so that oil can begin flowing by late 2016 or early 2017, despite heavy opposition from environmental groups and first nations who fear the impact of an oil spill on some of Canada's most untouched wilderness and coastline.

The 65-year-old executive joined Mr. Harper on a trade mission that is the nearest the Prime Minister has come to resuming the Chrétien-era Team Canada-style missions, with five cabinet ministers and three dozen industry leaders.

Energy has figured large in Mr. Harper's meetings this week, with both Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, who is expected to succeed Mr. Wen this fall, calling for more co-operation.

"We need to carry out co-operation in energy trade and facilitate more large scale co-operation projects for oil and gas and mineral resources. We also need to expand our co-operation in nuclear energy and energy conservation clean energy and renewable energy," the Vice-Premier said in an address to a Canada-China business forum in Beijing yesterday.

Chinese oil companies, all state-connected, have been making quiet but mounting inroads into Canadian energy, investing about $10-billion in the oil and gas sector. Most recently, PetroChina International announced plans last week to buy a 20-per-cent stake in a Royal Dutch Shell PLC's shale-gas project in Groundbirch, B.C., in a deal Asian media have reported could be worth up to $1-billion.

Sinopec has an option to purchase up to 4.9 per cent of Northern Gateway's equity, or 4.4 per cent after the first nations' equity interest, and would receive about 50,000 barrels per day of crude capacity, Enbridge said. That share could well increase if other investors – including Cenovus Energy Inc., Nexen Inc., Suncor Energy Inc. and Total E&P Canada, as named in a National Energy Board filing last month – sell once the pipeline is up and running.

Despite the promise of more deals, Chinese players are widely expected to stick to minority ownership stakes in oil and gas, seen as more palatable to Canadians and less likely to trigger a wider review process. But Canada holds appeal both for its relative proximity, and as a stable democracy where supply can be guaranteed more easily than in conflict-ridden states like Iraq.

"I tell them it's the Canadian way," Mr. Daniel said of explaining the regulatory delays to his Chinese clients. Both China National Petroleum Corp. and China National Offshore Oil Corp., he said, have been "very interested" in the Gateway and expressed "strong interest" in meetings this week in the project.

"They do say they would build it faster in China. But Canada is not China," he said.

Special to The Globe and Mail