PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. (MarketWatch) ‘ Is China Canada's NBF? Or BFF? Or just maybe it doesn't want Canada's oil at all, said Beijing's ambassador to Ottawa in an eyebrow-raising speech and news conference in Calgary last week, adding that China can buy oil elsewhere.
Beijing's ambassador to Canada insisted in his “crude” remarks that China's just as eager to learn the oil business as it is to import Canada's oil.
Is Canada getting played by its (ostensible) new best friend? It looks like it to me, and many Canadians are skeptical of China's motives.
And China certainly doesn't want to be cast as the oil-sucking villain who despoils northern British Columbia's pristine environment with pipelines leading to its oil tankers. The envoy's remarks could be seen as China getting political cover for proposed pipeline projects.
China's big three oil companies aren't buying into Alberta's booming oil sands just for the oil, Ambassador Zhang Junsai insisted at a Calgary energy conference last week. They're in Alberta largely to learn the oil business and are as eager to mine Canada's knowledge and business practices as they are the oil.
Pardon the skepticism, but if you believe that, I have a 5,500-mile-long wall in Asia I'd like to sell you.
Investment by state-owned Chinese companies in Canadian oil-sands and shale companies has reached around C$20 billion so far.
If Canada somehow doesn't get the Keystone-XL extension built (Trans-Canada (TRP) filed new route plans last week), or if the Northern Gateway pipeline up in B.C. doesn't get OK'd, OR if plans to triple the capacity of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver don't pan out, there are other energy suppliers for China, Zhang said. Suppliers like Australia, where Zhang was formerly ambassador. Or Qatar, or Kazakhstan, or Russia. “We can buy our energy from other channels,” he noted.
“There are a lot of channels,” he added, sounding a bit like a guy who just got premium cable.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made getting Canada's Alberta bitumen out of North America and shipped off to foreign markets ‘ i.e., Asia ‘ a major priority. But what if they built a pipeline and no customers came, some are now wondering. The Chinese ambassador's remarks can only lead to unease in Ottawa ‘ and, possibly, to a speeding up of the approval process for pipelines.
Zhang made his remarks at the University of Alberta's China Institute conference.
There's no big hurry, Zhang is claiming. We're also here to learn the oil business and how to make a profit, how to manage public relations and local regulations. China is nothing if not patient. And that huge stockpile of Alberta crude isn't going anywhere soon.
“We haven't imported one drop of Canadian oil,” Zhang pointedly reminded reporters.
Zhang makes Chinese oil companies in Canada sound like someone taking a doctoral class in petroleum engineering. (Both Sinopec and Petro China have sizable investments in the Alberta oil sands.)
“China's companies invest in Canada's oil patch not just to ship the resources back to China,” Zhang said. “They come here to participate. There's investment opportunity because Canada is open for the international investment. If there's opportunity, China's companies will come to take some shares and to learn from Canada.”
Zhang said the Canada-China relationship is “not definitely tied to ensuring this production goes to China.” China, he said, wants to diversity its import partners as much as Canada wants to add to its export markets. And, of course, China doesn't want to rely on shaky Middle East sources for oil any more than the U.S. does. Canada may well be the most politically stable oil supplier in the world, and China likes that.
The difference is that the U.S. is already securely tethered to Canada's oil supply by pipeline, and China isn't ‘ yet, anyway.
Zhang's remarks are meant to make it appear China doesn't want to look overly anxious to get Canadian oil. Or that it's even necessary, which I don't believe one bit.
Maybe he's also trying to further depress the cost of Canadian crude by playing the long game. Zhang's Calgary comments reminded me of a recent interview with the longtime head of Israeli intelligence unit Mossad on “60 Minutes.” He said Iran was posturing with nuclear weapons just to raise the price of world oil. These days, it isn't hard to roil oil markets.
Hearing these sentiments coming from Canada's potentially biggest oil customer must have had a chilling effect in Ottawa ‘ which, I suspect, was the real audience for Zhang's remarks.
Zhang's remarks left a lot of the Canadian government and media wondering:
If those three pipelines don't get built or expanded, will China stick around? My guess is they certainly will. After all, the Alberta oil patch that holds the world's second-largest reserves of crude isn't going away. And neither is China's appetite for oil.
(Bill Mann is a MarketWatch columnist, based in Port Townsend, Wash.)
© 1997-2008 MarketWatch.com, Inc. All rights reserved. See details at http://custom.marketwatch.com/custom/docs/useragreement.asp.
Copyright 2012 MarketWatch.com Inc. All Rights Reserved.
(Originally published May 8, 2012, on MarketWatch.com.)