While some continue to push for state control of federal land, Chinese control of U.S. oil and gas illustrates why it might be better for Americans to keep public lands in public hands.
On Friday, a Chinese company, Yantai Xinchao Industry Co. Ltd., said it would pay $1.3 billion for oil fields in Howard and Borden counties in Texas, according to the Associated Press.
Yantai Xinchao said it signed a letter of intent with Ningbo Dingliang Huitong Equity Investment Center to buy the oil fields from Tall City Exploration and Plymouth Petroleum through Moss Creek Resources LLC. Dallas-based Moss Creek Resources became a limited liability company just four months ago as a Ningbo Dingliang subsidiary.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U. S., part of the Treasury Department, reportedly approved the transaction.
In its most recent report, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. said China led all other nations in the number of foreign transaction notices between 2011 and 2013. Of the 54 Chinese notices filed, 17 were related to mining, oil and gas, and utilities. Unfortunately, the report doesn't include the details of the sales. Unless a sale is publicized, it's difficult to learn what petroleum companies are involved.
But this isn’t the first Chinese purchase of U.S. petroleum resources, it won’t be the last and some may extend into Montana.
When they first tried to enter the U.S. petroleum market in 2005, the Chinese tried to go big with a purchase of Unocal Corp. Fu Chengyu - recently retired chairman of China Petrochemical Corp., called Sinopec, one of the largest oil companies in the world – was unsuccessful in his $18.5 billion bid after it received negative Congressional attention for siphoning off U.S. business.
Since then, Chinese companies have learned to come in through the back door by partnering with smaller U.S. companies and then playing a passive role, according to the Wall Street Journal. They've learned that U.S. companies end up becoming their biggest supporters.
In 2010, Fu struck the first such deal with Chesapeake Energy Corp, agreeing to pay upfront for a stake in oil fields and to cover some of the drilling costs. That same year, Sinopec committed $4.65 billion for a 9-percent stake in Alberta's Syncrude oil-sands project, one of Canada's biggest energy projects.
Between 2010 and 2012, Chinese companies invested more than $17 billion into oil and gas deals in the U.S. and Canada, according to data provider Dealogic.
In the case of Friday's purchase, Tall City Exploration is a small company of 40 employees formed in 2012 to develop the Howard County field of 30 wells while Plymouth Petroleum was created in 2011. Both work out of Midland, Texas with Element Petroleum Operating.
It’s a win-win for the partners. Smaller U.S. companies multiply, emboldened by Chinese backing to improve technology and push for more leases. Chinese companies get some of the profits while learning new methods to extract their own oil and gas. In 2009, China surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest consumer of energy in all forms.
But it’s not such a win for people living around developed leases if their groundwater becomes contaminated or they have to bear the burden of increased pressure on their infrastructure.
For example, University of Texas researchers tested three years' worth of water samples from public and private wells in the Barnett Shale region and found elevated levels of heavy metals, such as arsenic. Their findings, released this June, showed toxic levels of 19 chemicals, including carcinogenic BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylenes) compounds.
Because of the “Halliburton loophole” in the Clean Water Act, companies don’t have to divulge the contents in their fracking solutions, so the researchers couldn’t say definitively that the chemicals came from nearby fracked wells.
However, the scientists noted that “many of the compounds we detected are known to be associated with [fracking] techniques,” and said the data support further research on the potential of fracking contamination.
When groups like the American Lands Council demand the transfer of federal land to state control, some claim “states can manage the land better.” Aside from the myriad of other arguments against land transfer, Texas recently showed just how Western states might rule over any federal land they get.
Since oil and gas is big business, the Lone Star state bowed to the oil companies - and indirectly to the Chinese - and passed a law this year that prevents local governments from banning fracking. In June, Denton, suffering from water contamination in the Barnett Shale region, was forced to revoke its ban — the first in Texas — citing the cost of litigation.
If Howard and Borden counties were public land, some safeguards would exist. But now, they also can’t ban fracking, should things go wrong. The Chinese will benefit from developing their oil and gas and pay no price for any environmental contamination.
Similar dealings could occur in Montana.
In 2012, Fu Chengyu arranged for Sinopec to pay $2.5 billion to Devon Energy Corp. of Oklahoma City for a one-third stake in about 1.3 million acres of drilling property in Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere, according to Wall Street Journal.
Devon Energy owns exploratory claims in Montana, including the Shields River Valley.
Farther to the northwest, Solenex is pushing for the right to develop its 6,200-acre lease in the Badger-Two Medicine region near the Blackfoot Reservation.
Being a small limited liability company with only one lease established in 1982, Solenex would be a ripe target for Chinese companies. Solenex owner Sidney Longwell waited nine years after establishing Solenex before he asked the government to remove the 20-year-old drilling suspension in 2013.
The only thing standing between Solenex and its claims is the Department of the Interior, which will soon rule on the lease, which is overseen by the BLM but sits on Forest Service property.