CNOOC-Nexen: China's swoop shows sweet timing as Canadian crude discount halves

China's third-largest state owned oil company – China National Offshore Oil Corp or CNOOC – on Monday announced a $15.1 billion takeover of Canadian oilsands player Nexen, the biggest ever foreign investment in the North American country.

China is clearly prepared to pay top dollar for access to Alberta's oilsands offering a more than 60% premium to Nexen shares.

CNOOC is the number one off-shore crude and gas producer in China and for the time being the company is probably more interested in Nexen's off-shore assets in the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea and off-shore Nigeria than the oilsands operations.

Nexen's off-shore ops account for 70% of its revenue and its oil sands projects, notably Long Lake, has been struggling to produce near its promised 72,000 barrels a day.

The Calgary Herald points out that "the two producers were not strangers, as Nexen’s original partner at Long Lake, Opti Canada, filed for court protection from creditors last summer and was later acquired by CNOOC for $2.1 billion."

The early indication is that the Canadian government will not block the deal like they did when BHP Billiton tried to take over Potashcorp of Saskatchewan in 2010.

The Globe & Mail reports as part of its efforts to make the deal politically palatable CNOOC "insists it will run Nexen – and indeed all its operations – strictly on commercial principles, rather than as a policy arm of Beijing."

In December, the federal government approved Sinopec’s $2.2 billion bid for Calgary-based Daylight Energy, but a Chinese takeover of oil sands industry behemoths Suncor, Imperial and Canadian Natural is unlikely.

You cannot fault Cnooc's timing of the bid.

Despite a steep drop in the price of crude on Monday with US benchmark West Texas Intermediate down almost 4% in afternoon trade at $88.55, the price oil sands producers receive has improved dramatically since the start of July.

The gap between Western Canada Select – a blend of heavy oil sands crude and conventional oil – and US crude contracts contracted to $14 a barrel on Monday from a $30 discount on 3 July. This translates into an effective price per barrel for Alberta producers of $74.55, compared to $52.25 at the end of June.

The value of Syncrude, a light oil made from oil sands, also gained momentum moving into a premium of $3.00 a barrel compared to $5.25 discount at the start of the month. In February and early March Syncrude dropped to a record discount of more than $20 below to US crude.

To date Chinese owned companies have invested over $15 billion in Albertan oil sands developments and roughly 70% of all oil sands production is owned by out of Canada shareholders.