BP's Already Feeling a Chill in the Russian Arctic

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BP's (NYSE: BP  ) relationship with its billionaire partners in Russian oil company TNK-BP resembles a precarious marriage. One day, everything is wine and roses; the next, doors are slammed, vases hurled, and attorneys called.

As you likely recall, in January, BP and Russia's giant oil company, Rosneft, signed a $16 billion share-swap agreement in which Rosneft would gain a 5% stake in BP, and BP would become a 9.5% holder of Rosneft shares. Operationally, the two would then team up to explore the promising Russian Arctic.

Within a month, however, AAR -- the group through which BP's TNK-BP well-heeled Russians operate -- claiming that the deal violated exclusivity agreements -- had managed to gain a British court order temporarily blocking the BP - Rosneft combination. Along the way, AAR's leader (and TNK-BP's CEO) Mikhail Fridman offered up a concept whereby the venture would acquire BP shares from the company before swapping them for Rosneft's holdings.

Over the weekend, however, BP, with support from its supporters on the Russian venture's board, swatted down the idea of TNK-BP buying its shares. While the three independent directors on the board sided with the Russians, the proposal couldn't pass without a unanimous vote. Conversely, the Russians squelched a proposal wherein BP and Rosneft would have proceeded with their deal, while talks were initiated that could have led to TNK-BP being permitted to participate in the Arctic exploration.

Early in the process, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had cheered the unique BP-Rosneft pact, even intimating that TNK- BP could be added to the project. However, Igor Sechin, who strangely doubles as Russia's energy czar and Rosneft's chairman, argued that the joint venture lacked the experience that underlies his company's desire to work with BP. So now the parties will return to an arbitration process in London, where a late March decision is expected, and where it just might be that AAR enjoys a more solid case.

This, of course, is not the first time that the AAR group and BP have crossed swords. Indeed, in 2008, current BP CEO Bob Dudley, who then held the same position at TNK-BP, was forced to leave Russia and run the company from an unknown remote location when Russian authorities refused to renew his visa.

ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and France's Total (NYSE: TOT  ) both have newly-signed partnerships with Russian entities -- Rosneft with Exxon, and Novatek gas company with Total. Let's hope that their pending experiences are more positive than those that ultimately drove Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B  ) from its operating position on Sakhalin Island (in favor of Russia's giant gas producer and distributor, Gazprom) in 2006.

At the same time, the newest adventure for seemingly snakebit BP merits close attention from Fools with a bent for energy investments.  

Total is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. The Fool owns shares of Exxon Mobil. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named.  The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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