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Oil patch veteran warns against selling to foreigners

Tags: CNOOC, Nexen
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Bernard Isautier's reputation in Canada's oil patch is nearly unrivaled. As the former head of Aquitaine of Canada, Canterra Energy, Canadian Occidental Petroleum (now Nexen) and the architect behind the sale of PetroKazakhstan to China National Petroleum Corp in 2005, few people in the country will have as granular and influential a take on the country's oil sector and its role in the global economy.

So when Isautier says he is concerned about the sale of Calgary-based Nexen Energy to the China state-run CNOOC, many investors will likely take note. His reasoning is simple: Canada can't afford to see one of its largest energy companies fall under the control of foreigners.

"I am somewhat concerned that Canada would give up the control of these major Canadian companies to foreigners, particularly when you're talking about natural resources," he tells BNN. "It's very important for a country that the major businesses are managed and controlled by nationals, otherwise you risk being at the service of other countries."

Isautier says Canada should do whatever it takes to protect its "elite" business managers and that establishing a trend of selling the country's assets to foreigners is a "dangerous path."

"This would be a dangerous path to say 'because we are open to foreign investment, we are open to the takeover of our companies.' I think these two things are very different," he says.

He also says that although CNOOC has taken steps to differentiate itself from other state-run companies, it will never be able to ever fully distance itself from its government owners.

"Certainly if it is a state-owned company, it makes things worse. When you are a state-owned company, de facto, from time to time you have to act according to instructions from your government," he says.

He also doesn't buy the warnings by many analysts and investors that Canada won't be able to finance the development of the oil sands without selling some of its assets to foreign investors.

"I tend to disagree. If you have a good project, and the oil sands are a good project, they are well established, the technology is known, you have a record, so it's financeabl. It's financeable maybe with some innovation," he says.

Isautier remarks couldn't come at a more sensitive time for both investors and the Canadian government.

On Friday, Ottawa blocked the sale of natural gas producer Progress Energy to the Malaysian state-owned Petronas for $5.17 billion -- just minutes before the midnight deadline was set to expire.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis said he wasn't "satisfied that the proposed investment is likely to be of net benefit to Canada."

The business community was taken by surprise, warning the decision could scare foreign investors from Canada's oil patch at a time when hundreds of billions will be needed to develop the current pipeline of projects.

But Isautier doesn't buy that logic and believes that having Canadians running the country's largest energy projects trumps such economic concerns.

"A country needs to have its nationals running its most important companies," he says. "You could do all sorts of joint venture for oil sands, but keep Canadian management because otherwise you lose your identity."

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