WASHINGTON – A Chinese company's attempt to take over California-based Unocal is a threat to U.S. security and would give China political leverage in areas where the oil company has resources, lawmakers said Wednesday.
"The simple fact is that energy is a strategic commodity," cautioned House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter. The California Republican said Unocal's holdings _from drilling rights to exploratory capabilities in Asia and elsewhere_ "represent strategic assets that affect U.S. national security."
The Chinese National Offshore Oil Corp. (search), known as CNOOC and based in Hong Kong, has offered to pay $18.2 billion for Unocal (search), about $2 billion more than a proposal already on the table from Chevron Corp. (search)
The Armed Services hearing into the Unocal deal turned into a broad attack on China. Both lawmakers and witnesses dismissed CNOOC claims that its pursuit of UNOCAL was simply a commercial business deal — and not fueled by a broader government strategy to gain control of more global oil and natural gas assets.
To accept that it's simply a commercial deal "is extraordinarily naive," former CIA Director James Woolsey told the panel. He said CNOOC is 70 percent owned by the Chinese government and its top executive was appointed by the Communist Party.
The House recently passed a resolution urging President Bush to give any CNOOC purchase of Unocal a close review, including requirements of divestitures or other action to reduce U.S. national security risks.
"There are both political and military consequences to be considered," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. He noted that Unocal has significant natural gas holdings in Indonesia, an area that supplies fuel to Taiwan. The company also is part of an oil pipeline consortium in central Asia, taking oil from the Caspian region.
"China's purchase of Unocal would dramatically increase its leverage over these countries and therefore its leverage over U.S. interests in those regions," said Hunter.
Frank Gaffney Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy, said the pursuit of Unocal is part of a "larger, very determined and ominous strategy" by China to lock up oil and gas resources.
The center is a nonprofit group involved in security issues.
CNOOC has hired Washington lobbyists and a public relations to drum up support for the acquisition. Before Wednesday's hearing, they gave reporters a package of favorable newspaper articles and quotes from energy analysts to counter the sharp criticism inside the hearing room.
But the hubbub over China's bid might disappear, said Hunter, because Unocal's stockholders are scheduled to decide on Aug. 10 whether to accept the less lucrative Chevron offer.
Most of Unocal's oil and gas development is overseas. It has total proven worldwide reserves of 681 million barrels of oil and 6.57 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Its production of 58,000 barrels of crude a day last year represented less than 1 percent of U.S. production.