OTTAWA - A federal decision on the CNOOC-Nexen deal and new guidelines for foreign takeovers are only the beginning of a necessary policy conversation, says Alberta's intergovernmental affairs minister.
First, Alberta wants to see more clarity and transparency in Ottawa's next version of the foreign investment rules, Cal Dallas said in an interview on Wednesday.
Then, the revised rules will serve as a basis for a discussion about how the province should handle the cumulative impact of foreign investment in the energy sector, especially by foreign state-owned enterprises.
"I think that's a reasonable conversation to be having," Dallas said.
"I'm looking forward to the release of the position and discussion around what that net benefits test looks like. It will be interesting to see if it begins to contemplate the impact of cumulative investments and where it goes from there. We can — and will — have that conversation in Alberta as well."
He said the bid by China-controlled CNOOC to take over Calgary-based Nexen Inc. (TSX:NXY), has prompted some angst in Alberta and across the country, mainly because people are unsure how further acquisitions by state-owned foreign firms will affect the development of natural resources for Canada's benefit.
That anxiety has to be balanced against Alberta's need for about $120 billion in investment over the next decade, Dallas added.
"We continue to invite investment," he said. "We want to have a conversation more transparently about what constitutes a benefit of foreign direct investment. And we're perfectly prepared to have a conversation with Albertans about what impacts continued cumulative investment may have, both positive or potentially, you know, with some impact for Albertans."
Dallas said the province has the power to influence foreign investment patterns through its tax regime, but he said he has no intention of wielding a big stick.
"At any point, we control a piece of the tax scheme, that type of thing," he said. "So can you influence investment on the basis of investment policies at a provincial level? Absolutely. Are we saying for a minute that that's what we're prepared to do? Absolutely not.
"I'm saying that we listen to the people of Alberta. There have been some concerns expressed abut investments — whether proposed or transpiring — and it's important to make sure that we're prepared to have an open conversation with our constituents about that."
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says the federal government will announce new guidelines for foreign takeovers "fairly soon."
The minister said the government is aware of the need to clarify the rules for approval of big acquisitions, but is taking the time it needs because the issue is important.
"I can say it's being given priority ... It will be fairly soon," he said.
Ottawa is considering two controversial acquisitions in the energy sector — the $15-billion bid for Nexen Inc., and the $6-billion purchase of Progress Energy Resources (TSX:PRQ) by Malaysia's national oil and gas company.
While Flaherty didn't give a specific date for the new guidelines, the government has a Dec. 10 deadline on the Nexen deal.
However, Industry Minister Christian Paradis said Wednesday the Nexen review could be extended a third time, but added not to read too much into that.
"This is a deadline that could be extended, but once again, I won't speculate ... I don't want to send a signal. Don't interpret anything from what I'm saying here."
Ottawa has previously delayed its decision on both deals in part because it wanted to establish new rules under the Investment Canada Act. That move anticipates that Nexen and Progress are just the tip of the iceberg of growing foreign interest in Canada's rich resource sector.
Paradis said he could not go even as far as the finance minister about when the decisions are coming down or whether he will issue new guidelines before ruling specifically on the company bids.
"I can say stay tuned, " he said. "I don't want to go further than this. The markets are sensitive and I prefer not to elaborate."
Last week, Paradis suggested the new guidelines could come separately from the decision on the two bids, and that the Nexen and Progress Energy review is based on the existing definition of the "net benefit" to Canada test in the act.
The Alberta government came out in favour of the CNOOC bid soon after it was announced, but has since submitted a list of requirements to federal regulators that detail how the deal should benefit Alberta.