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How much of Canada’s energy resource lies in foreign hands?

The rush of foreign takeovers in the oil patch has placed billions of dollars in investments on the line, and created no shortage of political hand-wringing. In Ottawa, new guidelines are hastily being drafted as the federal government contemplates a pair of deals worth more than $21-billion.

But amid the flurry of debate about those investments, one fundamental question has been difficult to answer. How much of Canada’s energy resource actually lies in foreign hands?

It’s a difficult question to answer, in part because there are numerous ways to ask it: is it better to look at acreage owned? Or production planned? Or the oil sands alone? Or is it most accurate to look simply at current production, perhaps the most measurable way to sift out a response? That’s what Calgary bank Peters & Co. did, pulling the top 50 energy producers in Canada, and splitting out those majority and fully foreign-owned from those in Canadian hands, or that trade in Canadian public markets.

Their findings? For now, most energy production is in Canadian hands.

Thirty-two of the top 50 energy companies are Canadian-owned. And a greater percentage of oil – which is now the most valuable energy commodity – is under Canadian ownership compared with natural gas, whose prices have suffered. All of this assumes the government approves the pending sales of Nexen Inc. and Progress Energy Resources Corp. Strip those deals out, and the balance tips even more heavily toward Canada.

That said, those figures underplay the true numbers, because they consider Toronto-traded companies domestic. But Suncor Energy Inc., for example, estimates that roughly half its shares are not owned by Canadians – about 40 per cent belong to Americans. Some companies likely have lower ratios, but others are much higher: Lone Pine Resources Inc., whose initial private ownership was American, now estimates some 90 per cent of its public shares are held by U.S. investors.

And the figures also do not look at future production. Foreign companies have taken massive holdings in the oil sands, for example, which is expected to be a large source of future barrels from Canada. So current holdings suggest the balance will shift more toward foreign ownership in coming years.

Foreign activity is, of course, nothing new in the oil patch. U.S. investment has helped build the very foundations of energy development in Canada. This country’s current oil sands champion, Suncor, started life as a subsidiary of Sun Co. Inc., a U.S. energy company.

What’s newer is the substantial heft being thrown around by Asian companies, in particular those with state backing, which have begun to buy up substantial chunks of Canada’s oil sands and natural gas-rich lands.

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