TIES ARE CRUCIAL
On the day the U.S. barred its citizens from conducting business with Russia's Igor Sechin, BP PLC's American chief executive was in an uncomfortable spot: sitting at a boardroom table in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the oil executive.
BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley is a director of OAO Rosneft, the state-controlled Russian oil company where Mr. Sechin is president and a major shareholder. The British company owns 19.75% of Rosneft.
To ensure access to Russia's vast reserves—and avoid political tangles that can ensnare companies in the country that don't have Kremlin connections—big Western oil companies including BP, Total SA and Exxon Mobil Corp. have allied themselves with loyalists of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Sechin, a former government official, is one of Mr. Putin's closest allies.
Now, those connections are becoming liabilities as Western nations push Russia to back off from Ukraine by sanctioning some of those same individuals. That means the Western companies are facing pressure regarding the ties they have developed to gain access to crucial Russian energy prospects.
"All oil majors seek a piece of the Russian cake because they all need to put their hands on new resources, new fields," said a senior executive at France's Total. "Russia is the largest cake that is reachable."
Western companies outside the oil industry have distanced themselves from Russia over the past month. The chief executives of Alcoa Inc., Morgan Stanley and PepsiCo Inc., for example, have canceled appearances at next week's high-profile, annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
European companies, many with much deeper ties than their U.S. counterparts to Russia, also are pulling back. The chief executive of German engineering company Siemens AG, which has Russian ties going back more than a century, met with Mr. Putin shortly after the U.S. sanctions were rolled out but has since canceled his appearance at the St. Petersburg meeting.
Total CEO Christophe de Margerie and Royal Dutch Shell PLC Chief Executive Ben van Beurden plan to attend the St. Petersburg conference, their companies said.
The U.S. sanctions prevent Americans from doing business with Russian individuals but allows doing business with the companies in which the sanctioned individuals have minority stakes. Mr. Dudley, for example, may participate in board meetings with Mr. Sechin as long as they are conducting Rosneft's, and not Mr. Sechin's, personal business, the Treasury Department said.
Exxon Mobil recently said it is moving forward with plans for a $3.2 billion exploration effort starting this summer with Rosneft in the Arctic Kara Sea. Exxon and Rosneft also are exploring the Black Sea and Siberian shale and plan to export natural gas from Russia's Far East.
Total struck a deal in 2011 with OAO Novatek co-founder Gennady Timchenko, another Putin ally on the U.S. sanctions list, to invest $4 billion for a 12.8% stake. Mr. Timchenko owns 20.8% of Novatek, Russia's largest independent oil and gas producer, through another company. Total, its second-largest investor, expects its stake to rise to 19.6% by year-end.
France last autumn awarded Mr. Timchenko the Légion d'Honneur, its highest laurel, for his contribution to Franco-Russian economic ties.
During a trip to Mexico last month, Total's Mr. de Margerie urged French President François Hollande to ease Paris's stance on Russia to avoid jeopardizing business relationships, two people familiar the conversation said.
The Timchenko-de Margerie relationship has remained strong. When the Russian pulled out of a Paris conference in mid-April following his inclusion on the sanctions list, Mr. de Margerie said he intended to cancel his appearance in solidarity, one of the people familiar with the situation said. Mr. de Margerie appeared after all and told the audience that he was speaking for himself as well as for Mr. Timchenko, people who attended the conference said.
No Western company is more enmeshed with Russia than BP. About 10% of its profit in the past quarter was generated from Rosneft, and BP and was bolstered by its Russian cash flow following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
BP's big Rosneft stake requires communication between Mr. Dudley and Mr. Sechin.
"We will continue to work in whatever the appropriate manner is with Rosneft, primarily as a shareholder, but also as a partner," Mr. Dudley told investors on April 29, the day after the U.S. put Mr. Sechin on the sanctions list. BP said that under the current situation, Mr. Dudley will continue to serve on the Rosneft board and that the British company will abide by any applicable sanctions.
Drawn by Russia's promise of substantial reserves, BP in 2003 spent about $8 billion to create TNK-BP Ltd. Mr. Dudley was the 50-50 joint venture's CEO and installed business practices that turned the company into one of Russia's largest oil producers.
But there was constant tension between BP and its Russian-oligarch partners. BP upset its partners by trying to strike deals, which ultimately were unsuccessful, with state-controlled companies to gain political allies.
By late 2007, relations between Mr. Dudley and the Russian executives were breaking down. In the subsequent months, the Russian partners demanded Mr. Dudley's ouster. He left Russia in 2008, telling colleagues he feared detention.
Three years later, BP renewed efforts to collaborate with a state-controlled company, agreeing to explore the Russian Arctic with Rosneft. But TNK-BP blocked the deal in court, and Rosneft teamed up with Exxon instead.
BP in 2012 agreed to sell its TNK-BP stake to Rosneft for $27.5 billion in cash and stock. That gave the British company its stake in Rosneft and put Mr. Dudley on the Russian company's board. The deal has turned out well for BP. After an initial $8 billion investment, BP ended up with about $19 billion in dividends and a pile of cash.
While the sanctions allow BP to continue collecting Rosneft dividends, the measures make it difficult for BP to strike further deals with Rosneft. Such partnerships were part of the U.K. company's strategy to boost reserves and production following the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, people familiar with the matter said.
One challenge for BP: While it books a share of Rosneft's profit, it has little control over the state-linked company.
Mr. Dudley is one of nine Rosneft directors and must bow out of discussions on joining with other Western companies—a significant part of Rosneft's expansion plans.
"It's hard to imagine Rosneft will be managed better because Bob Dudley is on the board," a person who has worked with BP on its Russia deals said.
State-controlled Rosneft is less efficient than comparatively lean Western oil companies like BP. But with new reserves hard to find, the person said, Western oil companies can't afford to leave Russia.
"BP is sort of stuck. They don't have a liquid position and they can't get out," he said. "But they don't want to."
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