The Oil and the Glory

Should Americans still fear this man’s ambitions?

Should Americans still fear this man’s ambitions?

In 2005, Fu Chengyu, then-CEO of the state-controlled Chinese oil company CNOOC, wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, titled, Why is America Worried? Fu (pictured above) intended to reassure Americans that he meant no harm with a bid at the time to buy Unocal, the California-based oil company. But it did no good: Americans were in fact worried about allowing what they regarded as a strategic resource to fall into the hands of a rival country. Instead Chevron, with a lower bid, ended up with Unocal.

Today, Fu, now CEO of another Chinese oil giant called Sinopec, is back in the United States. He has been buying up minority stakes in large unconventional oil fields — shale gas and shale oil — through deals with companies like Chesapeake Energy and Devon Energy. The Wall Street Journal says the state-by-state total investment since 2010 between Sinopec and CNOOC has been $17 billion.

So should America again be fearful? The answer is no. Specifically, if the U.S. were presented today with a similar situation in which Sinopec, CNOOC or another big Chinese enterprise bid on a U.S. oil company, it ought to eagerly embrace it.

The reason is that, unlike with IT or other high-tech intellectual property, it is in the United States’ strategic interest for China to possess its companies’ cutting-edge oilfield technology, specifically how to develop shale gas and shale oil. China will keenly seize on that technology and apply it back home, with the result that pressure will be reduced on global oil prices. On shale gas, because a big find of indigenous gas is one of the only ways in which China will switch out of far dirtier coal in the production of electricity, it would be a strategic achievement if China became a first-rate fracker.

I spoke this morning with an oilman having specific interest in the subject — John Imle, Unocal’s former president. Imle said that a Chinese acquisition of a U.S. energy company — say, Chesapeake, the second-largest gas player in the country — would be "all upside" for the U.S. He said:

It’s part of globalization and not an unhealthy part. It’s positive for humanity because it results in energy supplies that are adequate so we don’t have energy wars down the road. And it should provide lower-cost energy globally, which is important for the global economy. So I don’t see any downside. It’s all up. We want the Chinese to have plenty of gas.

To this day, Imle said, he and his former Unocal colleagues "lament" the failure of Fu’s attempt to buy them because, if he had succeeded, they believe the company would have been kept as a stand-alone enterprise. "It would have been a real powerhouse with CNOOC," he said.

Sinopec’s U.S. footprint today is light. Fu is going in for non-operating, relatively small shares of shale plays so that he does not stir U.S. politics, as Ryan Dezember and James Areddy write this week in the Wall Street Journal. Chesapeake spokesman Jim Gipson suggested to me that a Sinopec acquisition of or merger with Chesapeake is not in the cards.

If it were, John Imle is not vexed. "If U.S. producers are distressed, and some are because of low prices and want to monetize part of their assets, then let them go to the highest bidder. If the highest bidder happens to be China, so what?"