Will the U.S. allow China to buy more Gulf of Mexico oil assets?

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This is a crucial question because Devon Energy, the Oklahoma-based independent oil and natural gas producer has just decided to put billion of dollars in Deep sea Gulf of Mexico assets on the market.

Canada’s National Post reported:

Devon Energy Corp. hopes to raise up to US$7.5-billion from the sale of its Gulf of Mexico and international assets as the company moves to restructure itself as a North American on-shore player.

Devon’s chief executive, Larry Nichols, said the company believes the market is not valuing its Gulf of Mexico and international assets properly. Devon hopes to realize between US$4.5-billion and US$7.5-billion from the sale of assets during 2010.

Reporting on the same issue, the New York Times has indicated that the Chinese may well be interested in these assets.

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One company that might be interested in taking the risk would be China National Offshore Oil Corporation, known as Cnooc. It recently agreed to buy a stake in some of Statoil’s Gulf assets, the first time that a Chinese company would take an ownership interest in energy assets in the United States.

Only four years ago, Cnooc’s $18.5 billion bid for American oil company Unocal collapsed under pressure from Congress amid concerns about American oil assets falling under the control of the Chinese government. Since then, the Chinese have been wary of bidding on American energy assets and have concentrated their investments on undeveloped fields at home and in Africa, the Middle East and South America.

The Statoil deal seems to have changed all that. But Devon’s assets could be too much, too soon for Cnooc. It may simply continue to buy small stakes in fields across the region before it is ready to make a major purchase.

The Statoil connection for Cnooc has not made much of a splash up in the mainstream press, but it is significant given the protectionism we witnessed when the Chinese were rebuffed when they outbid Chevron for Unocal, an American company which had largely non-U.S.based energy assets.

Forbes reported on the Cnooc Gulf of Mexico acquisition two weeks ago:

CNOOC Ltd has agreed to buy a minority stake in four prospects in the Gulf of Mexico from Norway’s Statoil, opening crude oil reserves in the U.S. Gulf to China for the first time.

CNOOC will have a 10 percent to 20 percent interest in the four exploration areas, CNOOC spokesman Xiao Zongwei told Reuters.

But, the Devon assets are far more substantial. Moreover, Cnooc comes in after the fact as a minority investor in the Statoil projects. With the Devon sale, Cnooc would be a principal actor and that leaves the door ajar for economic nationalism.

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