The Russian Oligarchs Nail BP Yet Again

The deal that BP (NYSE: BP  ) and Russia's big oil company Rosneft announced in January looked like it might pump life into the wounded British company. But now, the pump is itself becoming weaker and progressively more erratic.

The structure of the agreement was unusual. It would have involved a $16 billion share-swap agreement through which Rosneft would have gained a 5% stake in BP, while BP would have garnered a 9.5% share of its new partner. The two companies would then have joined forces in exploring the promising Russian Arctic.

Obviously, in addition to inducing investment in Russia by a big Western company and giving it a piece of BP, the agreement would have brought Rosneft technological expertise operating in the challenging offshore Arctic. It also could have helped BP begin to move beyond the horrors that have beset the company since its 2010 Gulf of Mexico rig explosion and oil spill.

As luck would have it, however, BP is also an equal partner in Russia's third-largest oil company, TNK-BP. Its partners in that venture -- a group of Russian billionaires who operate under a holding company known as AAR -- immediately objected to its deal with Rosneft, maintaining that TNK-BP should constitute the partners' sole vehicle for investing in Russia's oil sector. Their contention was supported by England's High Court, and later was substantiated by a panel of commercial arbiters.

So now despite virtually nonstop negotiations among the three parties, the deal has blown past its Tuesday deadline. Solutions that were raised -- and rejected -- along the way involved TNK-BP buying BP's shares and BP buying out its oligarch partners. The latter went as far as a BP offer of $27 billion to the partners, whose idea of a fair value for their interest in the joint venture turned out to exceed $30 billion.

Involvement in Russia's energy sector is never a walk in the park for Western companies. Indeed, the likes of ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B  ) , France's Total (NYSE: TOT  ) , and Norway's Statoil (NYSE: STO  ) have all been jabbed by sharp Russian elbows. Nevertheless, the companies continue to return for more: Exxon and Total have recently agreed to new partnerships with entities in Russia.

Nor is this the first time that AAR and BP have been both partners and enemies. Three years ago, current BP CEO Bob Dudley headed TNK-BP, before being forced to flee the country when Russian authorities -- surely at the oligarchs' behest -- refused to renew his visa.

At this juncture, the possibility of a Rosneft-BP tie-up hasn't been completely erased. But with no resolution to the contretemps in sight, I'm forced to wrestle with two salient questions: First, how long will Rosneft stick with BP before dancing with a different partner? Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , for instance, comes to mind. And second, when will it dawn on Dudley that the AAR oligarchs' method of doing business is an unnecessary noose around an already damaged BP neck?

Whether further talks among BP, AAR, Rosneft, and the Russian government last for days, weeks, or months, given the current lack of progress, I'd recommend that Fools simply watch the fiasco from afar. Easily the optimum way to accomplish that reconnaissance is to add BP to My Watchlist, our free personalized stock monitoring service.

Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended Chevron, Total, and Statoil. 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 in the article above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On May 17, 2011, at 5:03 PM, dnldnwmn wrote:

    Seems to me that anyone doing business in Russia ends up being screwed. Best answer is to boycott them and to pass no new technology their way until they prove (probably will never happen) they are a trustworthy partner. How about a multi-billion performance bond to be held by a Western bank?

  • Report this Comment On May 17, 2011, at 11:36 PM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    Yeah, right. That would be a great idea, if at the same time our "new technology" included top-of-the-line public transit, as well as safe hybrid cars.

    They have more oil reserves than we do, have you heard?

    Why did you think any major Western corporation has been dealing with them?

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