Speculation was growing Friday that the China Offshore Oil Co. (CNOOC) was only waiting for Congress to recess before either dropping its attempt to purchase Unocal Corp. or raise the stakes and announce a U.S. partner to take over its U.S. assets.

Neither CNOOC nor Unocal would comment on the rumors. However, several financial analysts suggested that a white horse, in the form of a U.S. partner, could be a route that CNOOC may take to win the El Segundo, CA-based producer from Chevron Corp. Unocal’s board, which has scheduled a shareholder vote on Aug. 10, is recommending that shareholders accept Chevron’s bid even with CNOOC’s higher all-cash bid of $18.1 billion ($67/share). Chevron’s cash-and-stock bid is valued at $17.2 billion ($63.75/share) based on Friday afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange, where Chevron’s shares had fallen to about $58.50.

“A U.S. buyer in hand, versus CNOOC’s willingness to sell the U.S. assets” could give the Unocal board of directors “a little more comfort,” said Peter Schoenfeld, CEO of P. Schoenfeld Asset Management LLC. The company has authority over more than one million Unocal shares. Schoenfeld, who had criticized Chevron’s bid, said, “I would hope the board would support it.”

Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Fadel Gheit suggested that Occidental Petroleum Corp., Apache Corp., Burlington Resources Inc. and Devon Energy Inc. all might be likely candidates to buy Unocal’s U.S. assets. He put Occidental at the top of the list.

“All these companies have a huge amount of cash, but Oxy has established itself as an efficient U.S. producer, and they’ve made it clear they want to expand their U.S. operations,” Gheit said. “They could easily pull off a $2 billion to $3 billion deal, no problem.”

However, while analysts speculated about what CNOOC will do, media reports in Asia indicated that the Chinese national oil company was ready to either abandon its takeover or raise the bid. A spokesman for CNOOC said the company’s bid for Unocal remains in effect, adding that the company “continues to monitor the situation.”

In Tokyo, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, a leading Japanese daily, reported Friday that CNOOC was abandoning its bid for Unocal. The newspaper quoted an unnamed CNOOC official, apparently in charge of foreign investment, who said, “We will no longer consider a Unocal takeover.” Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported Friday that “people close to the situation” said that CNOOC may increase the bid to as much as $20 billion.

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