If you're looking at Russia from the perspective of major oil companies, it's often hard to tell whether you're coming or going, especially if you're planning to enter into a relationship with Rosneft, the country's big oil company. That's been the case with BP (NYSE: BP ) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) as of late, and if it's not cautious, the urge to get into Russia is likely to hit ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) as well.
Chevron thinks twice
In Chevron's case, Rosneft CEO Eduard Khudainatov broke the news late last week at his company's annual meeting in the Russian city of Krasnodar: Chevron was pulling out of its $1 billion, year-old deal with Rosneft to explore Shatsky Ridge in a deepwater portion of the Black Sea. There are those who believe that the region might contain as much as 6 billion barrels of oil. But maybe not.
It seems that the parting of the ways between the two companies began with a disagreement between their respective geologists about the size of the opportunity in Shatsky Ridge. While nobody has shown me the data on the area -- and I likely couldn't do it justice, anyway -- I'm inclined to give Chevron the nod on this one, given the company's well-deserved reputation for technological leadership among Big Oil companies.
It's also entirely possible that the California company realized the Russians weren't kidding when they structured the deal such that it would entitle Chevron to just a 33% stake in the operating company, but would saddle it with 100% of the exploration costs. Indeed, it's precisely that sort of one-sidedness that has frustrated Western companies in Russia for a couple of decades now. It just might prevent Rosneft from gaining the sort of respect shared among the world's oil and gas companies, as envisioned by Igor Sechin, the country's deputy prime minister for oil and gas, who recently stepped down from the company's board.
Rosneft's not alone
But it's not just Rosneft that's the culprit. For years, Russian officials have leaned on Western companies working in their country to the point that they've kept many of them in a pique that has often led to a not-so-fond "goodbye." For some unfathomable reason, however, the companies frequently come crawling back when the Ruskies wave what appears to be a sweet deal.
Take Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B ) , for instance. You may recall that for a dozen years until December 2006, the company oversaw the Sakhalin-2 consortium that included a couple of Japanese companies. They had labored on less-than-inviting Sakhalin Island, a 500-mile-long swath of land in the Sea of Okhotsk, east of Russia and north of Japan. Russian author Anton Chekhov referred to it as "a hellish place" more than a century ago.
During Shell's lengthy stint on Sakhalin, one Oleg Mitvol, the deputy head of Russia's environmental enforcement agency, "uncovered" all manner of what he maintained were environmental transgressions on the company's part and threatened it with $30 billion in legal claims. The proposed solution from the Russia's powers that be was for Shell to simply sell 50% plus one share of its interest in the project for $7.5 million to natural gas giant Gazprom, Russia's largest company.
Because it had no choice, Shell took the bate, even though it was obvious that the amount Gazprom handed over was well below market value for the stake. But if you assume that Shell learned its lesson from the fleecing, you don't understand energy company mentality. Just last month, the company's CEO, Peter Voser, met with Sechin to discuss possible joint ventures in the Russian Arctic, the Black Sea, and -- I trust you're seated -- Sakhalin-3.
Let's now head for the area covered by Sakhalin-1. There we'll find ExxonMobil in charge, working hand-in-hand with the likes of Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB ) and breaking drilling records in the process. But you won't always find its relationships with Russian authorities to be hunky-dory. In fact, as I told my Foolish friends four years ago, things were so testy that Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson stated that his company "needs more clarity about how the Russian government will treat foreign companies before it will undertake more projects there."
But when we arrive at Exxon's digs we just might come upon a contract signed with Rosneft in January and involving joint exploration of the Black Sea. Neil Duffin, ExxonMobil's president, said at the signing that he hoped "the same spirit of co-operation and partnership" that has prevailed at Sakhalin-1 would carry over to the Black Sea.
Is Dudley a fast learner?
You likely know about BP's latest Russian travails, wherein its four Russian billionaire partners from AAR have prevented the company from executing a partnership with Rosneft. What you probably don't know is that the same Oleg Mitval who busted Royal Dutch Shell to facilitate Gazprom's bargain basement Sakhalin purchase also manhandled BP back in 2007. He maintained that TNK-BP wasn't producing enough gas from its big Kovytka field in Siberia, despite a Gazprom export monopoly that essentially prevented the partners from upping their output.
You won't be shocked, then, to learn that shortly thereafter, good old Gazprom acquired the Kovytka field for what one U.S. newspaper called "a knockdown price." Perhaps your only remaining question is why Bob Dudley, BP's CEO, and then the CEO of TNK-BP, had his heart set on putting more of BP's assets into Russia.
We could discuss the difficulties that France's Total (NYSE: TOT ) and Norway's Statoil (NYSE: STO ) have encountered working with Gazprom on the development of Russia's big Schtokman gas project. But I'm sure you're getting the picture, such that the only remaining issue involves where all this leads from an investment perspective.
It may appear to be a small point, but I'm frankly impressed that Chevron took the initiative to pack up and head out when its deal with Rosneft turned out to be less than it had hoped for. In fact, Chevron appears more and more to have an edge when it comes to sensible decisions. I therefore suggest that you keep a close eye on the company, beginning with its addition to your individual watchlist.