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It seems BP (NYSE: BP ) is either a glutton for punishment or on its way toward Big Oil's center stage.
After months of agony and asset sales following its April tragedy aboard Transocean's (NYSE: RIG ) Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the big British company has inked a deal to exchange 5% of its own shares for a 9.5% share of Russia's state-controlled oil company Rosneft. The pair will then jointly explore three blocks in the Russian Arctic's promising South Kara Sea.
The companies expect to spend up to $2 billion for seismic studies and drilling in the first phase of their exploratory effort. They're already working together with minimal success off Russia's Sakhalin Island, where ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) and even Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A ) have had better luck. But as to the new venture, some observers think the South Kara Sea may contain 35 billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.
The agreement represents history's first cross-shareholding between a major international oil company and a large national oil company. As BP CEO Bob Dudley said, "We are pleased to be joining Russia's leading oil company to jointly explore some of the most promising parts of the Russian Arctic. This unique agreement underlines our long-term, strategic and deepening links with the world's largest hydrocarbon-producing nation."
There's real irony in Dudley's remarks, however. It wasn't long ago that he was CEO of TNK-BP, a 50-50 joint venture between his company and a group of Russian billionaires. The partnership still represents a quarter of his company's worldwide production and a fifth of its reserves. Nevertheless, in 2008 the battling between BP and its Russian partners reached the point that, when Russian authorities refused to renew his visa, Dudley found it necessary to leave Russia and run the company from abroad.
Feathers in the partnership were eventually smoothed, but not before the CEO post had gone to a Russian. Indeed, as France's Total (NYSE: TOT ) and Norway's Statoil (NYSE: STO ) have also learned from their big Shtokman natural gas partnership with Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled gas giant, relationships in that country fare best when the Russians are handling the helm.
Further, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out over the weekend, in Russia "the risks are high." There's even carping from U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who became perhaps BP's toughest critic during the Gulf spill. "BP once stood for British Petroleum. With this deal, it now stands for Bolshoi Petroleum," said Markey.
Nevertheless, Dudley clearly is still willing to take chances in Russia, and with BP's shares still well below their pre-Gulf spill level, Fools would be well-advised to bundle up and watch the action in the Russian Arctic.