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PetroChina probe raises new worries over Dover payment

Employees spray water to cool down oil tanks at a PetroChina oil storage facility in Suijing, Sichuan Province August 13, 2010. China National Petroleum Corp. will investigate cash that was skimmed from earnings at units including PetroChina Co. Ltd.

© Stringer China / Reuters/REUTERS

China National Petroleum Corp. has launched a probe into embezzlement at its energy subsidiaries in the latest chapter of a corruption saga that has raised concerns about its Canadian operations.

State-owned CNPC will investigate cash that was skimmed from earnings at units including PetroChina Co. Ltd., according to the Xinhua news agency. The money was used for "bonuses" to employees as well as to pay for "extravagant consumption," the report said.

PetroChina has operations in its home country and around the world. In Canada, it is the partner of Calgary-based Athabasca Oil Corp. It exercised an option last April to buy Athabasca's 40-per-cent interest in the Dover oil sands project.

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Athabasca's shares have been under pressure amid delays in receiving the $1.23-billion in proceeds for the stake and questions about officials tied to Canadian operations who have been held for questioning in Beijing.

"The move will focus on uncovering and clearing 'private coffers' set up in all its subsidiaries, including PetroChina, according to a statement from the CNPC's internal disciplinary unit on Thursday," the report by state-controlled Xinhua said.

A Chinese government audit, released in June, found that the company, one of the world's largest diversified energy concerns, was found to have "held back" the equivalent to $98-million (U.S.) from profits, it said.

It is not known if PetroChina's Calgary-based unit is being investigated as part of the probe. Executives, including the former head of the joint-venture company operating Dover, were taken in for questioning in China last month as part of a sweeping anti-corruption campaign.

Athabasca chief executive Sveinung Svarte said on Aug. 6 that his company and PetroChina had hammered out a path and a deadline for completing the transaction. Mr. Svarte did not reveal the expected timing, however.

Athabasca's shares have regained some ground since he gave his assurances, though they remain well below the year's highs set in February. Last week, Reuters quoted an unnamed source in China as saying PetroChina planned to make the payment before the end of September. It said the company delayed writing the cheque while it reassessed the deal amid the government anti-corruption probe.

Chinese companies invested billions of dollars in oil sands assets before Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government imposed more stringent rules for foreign state-owned enterprises in late 2012, essentially barring bids for control of such projects.

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With a few exceptions, profits have been slow to materialize amid project delays and operational problems. Leaders in Beijing have grown impatient, and that may play into detentions, said Wenran Jiang, special adviser to the Alberta government on Canada-China energy issues.

"They've not only had a crackdown of the senior-level leadership, they've arrested people in charge of Canadian operations, so yes, I would say there's an impact," Mr. Jiang said.

However, he pointed out that many of the operational struggles the Chinese companies face, such as delays and cost overruns, are shared by all oil sands investors as activity heats up, sparking competition for labour and materials.

In July, Zhiming Li, the former chief executive of Brion Energy – the PetroChina-Athabasca joint venture – was detained in China along with another CNPC official. It's not clear why Mr. Li was arrested. It followed an investigation of Bo Qiliang, PetroChina's overseas operations chief, who had led international expansion efforts in Canada and elsewhere.

Three weeks ago, Chinese news media reported that the whereabouts of Margaret Jia, who had been Calgary-based general manager for CNPC's Canadian operations, were unknown. However, Chinese financial news website Caixin reported there was no evidence to link Ms. Jia with any corruption investigation.

Kristi Baron, spokeswoman for Brion, said she was not aware of an internal probe at Brion. Ms. Baron said Ms. Jia had been an executive and spoke for PetroChina in Canada, but she did not know of a current official spokesperson at the company.

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Xinhua said CNPC, as part of its investigation into embezzlement, asked its subsidiaries to conduct a "thorough self-check and form detailed reports." Top executives will read and sign off on the reports, it said.

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