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BP's Historic Russian Deal

Pity the makers of soap operas. First, reality TV came along with far more eccentric characters than their writers could ever imagine. Now the world of big business is producing plot twists that would seem far-fetched even to hardened soap viewers.

In fact, you'd have to go back to the 1980s and the big U.S. oil biz sagas Dallas and Dynasty for unlikely drama on the scale of BP's (NYSE: BP  ) past 12 months.

The latest episode: On Friday, BP's CEO Bob Dudley announced a huge tie-up with an overseas competitor, potentially giving BP access to vast reserves of oil and gas in a barely explored region of the world.

That's what oil majors do, true. But BP's partner in the deal is Rosneft, the state-owned Russian company that's best known for acquiring the assets of fellow Russian oil company Yukos Oil after the latter was controversially broken up by the Russian government.

Of course, such political risk in Russia is well-known to BP investors. Only two years ago, the head of BP's Russian affiliate, TNK-BP, reportedly had to flee the country due to conflict with its major Russian shareholders and the authorities.

And who was BP's hero on the run? The man who's now BP's CEO -- Bob Dudley!

Share and shares alike
Still, BP shareholders are a hardy lot. Any who held the shares through the fatal rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico last April, and the subsequent mauling of BP (and its share price) by the US media and the White House, will surely hold their nose and take a level-headed view of the latest Russian deal.

And political risk notwithstanding, it looks good for both parties.

BP and Rosneft have agreed to work together to explore some 125,000 square kilometers of the South Kara Sea in the Arctic. The three license blocks are considered highly likely to hold huge reserves of oil and gas -- in the order of the billions of barrels of oil required to move the needle on the reserves a super-major like BP -- but Russia needs Western technical and management expertise to exploit them.

As part of the deal, BP will exchange 5% of its shares for 9.5% of Rosneft shares.

BP says it's the first such equity-linked partnership between a national oil company and an oil major on this scale, and it's certain to raise eyebrows -- although U.K. Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has already given it the government's blessing.

Now, if you followed BP: The Soap Opera's 2010 series, you might remember that classic bust up between the-then BP CEO Tony Hayward and 2010's cameo star, President Obama.

Hayward's dramatic exit got viewers around the world talking. He was never a particularly popular character, but many felt he'd been handed a pretty rough script.

But perhaps Hayward has had the last laugh? His last mumbled words to Obama as he exited our screens were something along the lines of "If you're going to be like that, I'll take my ball to Russia." And it seems to have paid off in spades.

Of course, like in any good soap opera, the spurned partner isn't taking news of a new lover quietly. Edward Markey, the leading Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee has complained that "BP once stood for British Petroleum. With this deal, it now stands for Bolshoi Petroleum."

To which BP investors may retort that you should be careful what you wish for. Many felt the U.S. authorities unfairly and too hastily treated BP as a scapegoat -- whereas an ongoing U.S. presidential commission into the Gulf of Mexico spill seems to be concluding that the disaster was due to industry-wide practices allied to poor regulation.

Whether the U.S. authorities will resume shooting themselves in the foot on this Russian deal remains to be seen. One lesson of 2010 was that political risk is an issue, even in the U.S. On that measure, BP's latest overture with Russia may not seem so unpalatable.

States of play
But while it's tempting to see BP's latest Russian move as some grand snub to U.S. public opinion, the truth is it's probably a glimpse of the future.

Countries such as Russia, Venezuela, and Brazil own a potentially vast amount of the world's remaining hydrocarbons, and the major oil companies are increasingly going to have to do imaginative deals with them.

Also, while green campaigners have voiced alarm that the company that was ultimately responsible for the U.S.'s biggest oil disaster is now set to drill in ecologically important Arctic waters, it could be argued that a chastened BP is uniquely motivated to avoid another such calamity.

This may be the view of the Australian authorities, too. On Monday, they awarded BP Australia the rights to explore four deepwater blocks off the coast of South Australia. Australia's record on the environment is certainly not perfect, but most would put it well ahead of Russia's.

Keep watching
It will be several years before any drill bits bite into the murky substrate beneath the South Kara Sea. The whole region will need to be surveyed in detail, and both operational and environmental assessments made.

Combine that with uncertainty over the ultimate bill for the Gulf spill, that will take years to be resolved in the U.S. courts, and anyone considering BP shares has to take an unusually long-term view of the risks and rewards offered by the company. This story is far from over.

More from Owain Bennallack:

Owain doesn't own shares of any companies mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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  • Report this Comment On January 19, 2011, at 4:42 AM, Aventador wrote:

    BP: The New Comeback Kid. BP is a cash flow juggernaut and will be reinstating dividend in 2011.

    It's been a fine investment to have during the last 6 months and there is no reason whatsoever to assume the share price appreciation will not continue.

    I disagree that one needs 'to take an unusually long-term view' when considering BP as an investment.

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