BANGKOK - Add one more Asian suitor to Western Canada's resource-rich energy sector: Thailand wants to buy a major natural gas asset there.
The head of Thailand's energy giant, PTT Exploration and Production, confirmed the plan in an interview with The Canadian Press days before Prime Minister Stephen Harper is set to begin a three-country Asian tour in Thailand this week.
Harper has trumpeted Canada as an energy superpower and he has identified increased trade with Asia an economic priority.
Thailand appears determined to compete with China, Japan and South Korea for Canadian oil and natural gas assets. Those resources are coveted by Asian countries to feed their ever growing, energy-hungry economies.
Thailand's PTTEP joined the ranks of other Asian investors in November 2010 with its first purchase in Alberta's oilsands when it spent $2.3 billion for a 40-per-cent stake in the Kai Kos Dehseh (KKD) oilsands project, an undeveloped holding of Norway-based Statoil. The deal was the single biggest foreign investment by a Thai company to date, and Anon Sirisaengtaksin, the president of PTTEP, signalled that is only the beginning of its interest in Canada.
"This is kind of a strategic, long-term investment of ours," Anon told The Canadian Press in an interview from his Bangkok office. "KKD was the first entry. Now we are looking for some more opportunities."
"In the most general terms, this is one of the most attractive countries. In Canada, we are working in quite a conducive environment."
"We have just been there for a year and we still have to learn. But we think it could be one of the good countries in terms of the highest resource base and one of the largest resource bases in the world."
PTTEP also shared its ambitions for Canada's gas sector during a presentation to four Conservative MPs who visited Thailand in January.
"Acquisition would enhance Canada as a core area for PTTEP through the addition of a large, long-lived resource base," says a copy of a slide presentation that was prepared for Tory caucus members Patrick Brown, Blaine Calkins, Andrew Saxton and Brian Jean.
PTT is 65 per cent owned by conglomerate PTT Public Company Ltd., which is controlled by the government of Thailand.
China is the leading investor in Alberta's oilsands. Its state-owned enterprises have invested $5 billion in 2011 alone in Canada's resource sector.
"We are not competing with them," Anon said.
PTTEP is $20-billion company that boasts more than 40 exploration and development projects across the globe.
Srirat Rastapana, the director general of Thailand's Department of Trade Negotiations, said that Canada's energy sector is her country's top priority as it tries to deepen trade ties with Canada. Thailand is keen to open free trade talks with Canada.
"We have been net importers of energy. So we need to have a reliable source of supply," Srirat said in an interview.
"Energy security is important for Thailand, particularly for the growth of our economy."
The approval and construction of the $5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline that would connect Alberta's oilsands with a British Columbia port is widely viewed as the key to future Canadian energy trade with Asia. The plan faces widespread opposition from aboriginal groups and environmentalists that fear the damage that would come from spills from the pipeline or a tanker on the West Coast.
"The pipeline would be a facilitating instrument," said Anon.
"I think it would be a benefit for both countries, Canada and the Asia-Pacific region, if the pipeline was yet another access to the new market."
John Casella, the president Thai-Canada Chamber of Commerce, said Canada's energy sector has a bright future in South Asia because there will be no shortage of markets for its oil and gas.
"It imports a lot from the Middle East and I think being able to import from Canada instead is something they're looking for as an opportunity, hence the investment in Canada," Casella said.
"The reserves in Alberta will have more of a life span with countries in this part of the world than they will in Europe for example, which is more likely to move more quickly to alternative energy sources."
Casella said the oilsands are not seen as a source of dirty oil in Asia, as it is in Europe and the United States. Thais care about the environment, he said, but it's not a top of mind concern.
"Environmental concerns are a little bit of a luxury that the more developed countries can afford to have than developing countries like Thailand."
Anon said PTTEP is well aware of the environmental sensitivities surrounding the oilsands and his company is prepared to be a responsible corporate citizen.