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Canada again a focus of a new Great Scramble for oil

Immediately after the First World War, the lesson of victory from the use of oil, a new wonder fuel, wasn't lost on any of the bruised combatants. "He who owns the oil will own the world," said French senator Henri Berenger, "by reason of the fantastic wealth he will derive from oil, the wonderful substance which is more sought after and more precious today than gold itself."

A century on, his wisdom is forgotten in words, but not in spirit. The allure of oil as a vital, strategic commodity that drives the military might, industrial power and wealth of nations is stronger than ever. Canadians should reflect on that as they ponder the latest in a string of multibillion-dollar deals to grace the domestic oil patch, the $15.1-billion (U.S.) takeover bid for Calgary-based Nexen by China's CNOOC Ltd.

The announcement is justifiably contentious, because of its size and the cultural remoteness of the buyer. But history suggests that new sources of foreign investment in the energy business from Asia can serve Canadians well – if we can control the power and benefit from the wealth.

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The First World War put to an end the era of merely using kerosene to light lanterns. The war was the grim impetus that rapidly brought oil to power ships, motorized vehicles and winged machines in the air. Recognizing the importance of oil in winning the war, the prime victors – Britain, France and the U.S. – embarked on the Great Scramble, the pursuit of securing strategic oil reserves in foreign lands.

The Great Scramble was played out mostly in the Caspian and the Middle East. But in light of the Nexen deal, it's appropriate to point out that Canada's oil (and natural gas) riches were equally coveted after both world wars. U.S. companies were quick to recognize the potential of Western Canada 60 years ago, and were instrumental in providing the capital to invest in and develop our resources. In return, the tacit deal was for Canada to be the dominant supplier of foreign oil and gas to the U.S.

This bilateral trade arrangement has served the prosperity of both countries very well, but recent trends of oversupply and stagnant U.S. demand has led to steep price discounts for Canadian producers – a signal that the time has come to find new customers and investors.

Canada has had significant angst about being party to the Great Scramble. At its peak in 1973, over 78 per cent of our oil and gas industry was under foreign ownership and over 90 per cent of companies were under foreign control, mostly American. Such statistics were the seeds of the Trudeau government's national energy program. Although these percentages began subsiding substantially in the 1980s and 90s, it's important to remember that foreign interest in Canada's oil and gas industry is nothing new. In fact, it has been essential to driving prosperity across the country: Over the past 100 years, more than $1-trillion (in today's dollars) has been invested in oil and gas resource development, most of it coming from foreign interests.

China became a net importer of oil back in 1993, but the steep ramp-up in oil imports really began in 2002. Its pattern of increasing energy dependence is reminiscent of the U.S. back in the early 1970s. And the situation is not limited to China. In the face of rising demand from emerging economies, oil companies around the world are once again embarking on a new Great Scramble.

Some of the old names, like Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron and BP, are still key players, but new ones have emerged, like CNOOC, China National Petroleum Co., and Petronas of Malaysia, among many others trying to secure their oil future. Instead of the Middle East, the new scrambling grounds are places like Africa, and the "stans" of the former USSR. And once again Canada is a focus, as one of the few politically stable, free-market oil suppliers that respects the rule of law.

Nexen is Canadian-based, though only 30 per cent of its production is domestic. The rest comes from the prime scrambling grounds of the North Sea, West Africa and the U.S. It's an ideal acquisition for any multinational seeking this product that's "more precious today than gold itself."

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If the CNOOC-Nexen deal closes, the tally of Asian investment into Canada over the past three years will total over $45-billion. Add to that the billions more invested in our oil sands by non-Asian state-sponsored firms, notably Total of France and Statoil of Norway. Our capital draw is extending well beyond America – a welcome diversification in a world of economic uncertainty.

Yes, Canada is part of the new Great Scramble. The last one served us very well, providing us with decades of "fantastic wealth" that has made us the envy of the world. In Berenger's words, we own the oil. Yet we don't want to be audacious about owning the world, or recklessly handing ownership over to others. Our biggest challenge now is knowing how to take advantage of the incredibly fortunate position we find ourselves in – again.

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About the Author

Peter Tertzakian is chief energy economist and managing director with Arc Financial Corp. in Calgary and provides analysis on technology and energy-related businesses to fund managers and portfolio companies. More


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