When I think about the rapid globalization of many industries, I wonder where Western companies doing business in Russia will be in five years. A clear pattern's emerging, and it leaves me pessimistic about the chance of a rosy relationship.
For instance, last week Russian police visited -- maybe "raided" is a better word -- the offices of TNK-BP, a joint venture between U.K.-based oil giant BP (NYSE: BP ) and a pair of Russian companies. A "visit" to BP's offices followed later the same day.
The events, which resulted in a couple of arrests, occurred amid talk of tax evasion and industrial espionage. Shortly afterward, BP said it had recalled 148 employees in Russia on the basis of alleged "visa problems."
The real objective of the "visits" remains anyone's guess. But at least one online publication speculates that Russia wanted to push BP and the partnership into accepting a lower price for its operations at the big Kovykta gas field.
Last year, under pressure almost certainly emanating from the Kremlin, BP agreed to sell its interest in the field to the massive state gas giant OAO Gazprom (OTC BB: OGZPY.PK). The field, which lies in Siberia, near Lake Baikal, is estimated to contain about 70 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. BP and the Russians remain in negotiations regarding an appropriate price for the "sale."
The BP experience at Kovykta fits a growing pattern that I'd have difficulty ignoring if, like France's Total (NYSE: TOT ) , I had my sights set on increasing business and investments in Russia. In late 2006, for instance, Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A ) (NYSE: RDS-B ) was squeezed out of its operating role on a big project on Sakhalin Island, where its majority interest was sold to -- guess who? -- Gazprom.
As for Total, it's teaming up with Norway's StatoilHydro to help the Russians develop the massive Shtokman gas field. Located in the Barents Sea in about 1,100 feet of water, the field is beset by almost constant high winds, tall waves, and marauding icebergs. It nevertheless appears to contain enough natural gas to account for all of Russia's production for about half a dozen years.
Total has a 25% interest in the project, with StatoilHydro's share one percentage point lower, and Gazprom holding the majority 51%. However, the deal covers only the first phase of the field's development. Gazprom has made it abundantly clear to the companies that it'll undertake subsequent phases on its own.
Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan ...
State muscling doesn't stop at the Russian border. Late last week in neighboring Kazakhstan, a consortium of Western oil companies developing a portion of that country's rather impressive oil and gas reserves got a $15 million fine for environmental damages related to flaring. The consortium, which includes Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) and Italy's Eni (NYSE: E ) , said it believes it had fulfilled Kazakh tax and environmental standards. But so what? Pay the fine anyway!
A stable Russian business environment?
For its part, Total says it considers Russia a stable place to do business, and it hopes to add other partnerships with Gazprom to its quiver. But that assessment is tough to swallow, given Vladimir Putin's government's approach to dealing with most Western companies. And Russia's heavy-handedness is not likely to change under Putin's hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who's currently the chairman of -- you guessed it -- Gazprom.
So if I were Total's CEO, I'd be awfully cautious. Ditto for ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) , which is sitting atop a 20% stake in Russia's answer to big oil, Lukoil. Would it be out of character for the Putin/Medvedev regime to somehow slip that sizable stake out from under Conoco's grasp?
This all has significant implications for crude-oil prices and energy investments. As long as Russia, Kazakhstan, and even Venezuela keep up these shenanigans, traders will have reason to push oil stocks' prices higher than the fundamentals might indicate. Over time, this could create energy investing opportunities for Fools and non-Fools alike. Fools should consider those possibilities carefully.
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