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Thinking about the recent performance of a pair of Big Oil companies, namely ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) and BP (NYSE: BP ) , is akin to studying the speed capabilities of a finely tuned Indy open-wheeler and a Conestoga wagon. Put another way, while Exxon's world isn't perfect, it has chalked up more than its share of successes of late. Conversely, BP almost appears to be consciously attempting to lead the industry in tragic pratfalls.
From the Exxon side has come this week's announcement that the company will team with Russia's state-run oil giant Rosneft at a cost of $2.2 billion in the quest for oil in the ice-laden but promising Kara Sea in the Russian Arctic. At the same time, the Texas-based big enchilada among publicly held energy companies will pony up an additional $1 billion for a similar venture with Rosneft in the Black Sea. Also, the deal will likely let Rosneft participate in Exxon-operated deepwater Gulf of Mexico activities, along with joining onshore projects in Texas. Beyond that, there's the possibility of the Russian company joining in Canada's Hibernia project, which is 33%-owned by Exxon.
As you likely suspect, Exxon is replacing BP in the Arctic portion of a partnership that was announced early this year. Rosneft and BP had planned a $16 billion agreement that would have yielded a 9.5% stake in Rosneft to the London-based company while handing a 5% interest in BP to the Russians. The unusual deal was announced a matter of days before the disclosure of an Exxon-Rosneft venture for exploration of the Black Sea.
BP pushed aside
It didn't take long, however, for BP's Russian billionaire partners in the 50-50 TNK-BP joint venture to unleash a cacophony of disgruntlement involving a claim that BP's Rosneft deal violated the terms of its 2003 venture with the Russian oligarchs. The well-heeled locals -- who operate under Alfa-Access-Renova, or AAR -- took their argument in the form of a lawsuit to London's High Court, where they succeeded in obtaining an injunction that thwarted the new combination.
By May, despite lengthy negotiations among BP, AAR, and Rosneft, it became clear that BP CEO Bob Dudley's latest attempt to score a victory in Russia was certain to die an embarrassing death. At, or maybe slightly before, that time, Russia's deputy prime minister and oil czar Igor Sechin began searching for a new partner for Rosneft. After all, Russian technology isn't sufficiently developed to foster operations in the challenging Arctic without more sophisticated western guidance -- and funding help, as well.
Exxon's snazzy proposal
In relatively short order, ExxonMobil proposed an approach that outshone those submitted by France's Total (NYSE: TOT ) , Norway's Statoil (NYSE: STO ) , Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) , and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B ) . However, despite Exxon's size and deep pockets, the company's future in Russia could face difficulties along with the opportunities. On the positive side, the Kara Sea could contain as much as 100 billion barrels of oil equivalent, hardly small potatoes even for Exxon. At the same time, however, Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has predicted that the costs associated with developing the related properties could reach $500 billion -- much of which likely will come from Exxon's pockets. Along with the costs, exploration won't begin until 2015.
Beyond that, working with the Russians is rarely easy. While ExxonMobil has made a success of its Sakhalin-1 project on the country's desolate and frigid island of the same name, there have been rubs along the way. Further, Royal Dutch Shell was ousted from its operating role on Sakhalin-2 and forced to sell much of its interest to the country's big gas producer, Gazprom, at bargain-basement prices. And as recently as June, Chevron -- presumably because of differing geological opinions and a one-sided apportionment of costs -- backed out of an agreement with Rosneft that would have involved the development of a portion of the Black Sea.
A lesson to be learned
Even more amazingly, BP CEO Dudley's earlier service in the same capacity at TNK-BP was sufficiently contentious that he found it necessary to steal away from the country in 2008 and run the partnership from elsewhere. Eventually, he was forced to surrender the venture's leadership to a Russian. It seems that such an experience might have given him pause in January prior to agreeing to his company's Rosneft deal.
But despite BP's Russian travails, the 2010 blowout of its Macondo well and the related disaster aboard Transocean's (NYSE: RIG ) Deepwater Horizon rig -- along with its tragic 2005 refinery explosion that killed 15, pipeline accidents in Alaska's North Slope, and a revolving door of CEOs -- the company has had a number of successes, including, believe it or not, many in the Gulf of Mexico. Among its massive Gulf finds are the Thunder Horse, Kaskida, and Tiber fields. That last one was announced precisely two years ago and may contain billions of barrels of oil in place.
Tough to beat the best
Nevertheless, it's hard to top Exxon's strengths, either quantitatively or qualitatively. Besides its new additions in Russia, the company is active in most of the world's major plays, including Brazil, Nigeria, Iraq, Canada, Africa, and Australia. Closer to home, the acquisition of gas producer XTO slightly more than a year ago propelled it to the top spot among U.S. natural gas producers. Further, it has announced a trio of discoveries in the Gulf of Mexico that appear to add up to about 700 million barrels of oil and gas (although the company and its partner Statoil are now at odds with the Interior Department over lease extension considerations).
My firm conclusion is that, while the likes of Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell, for instance, are clearly solid companies, ExxonMobil's natural gas leadership, worldwide operations, technological strengths, quality management, and the opportunity to benefit substantially from its new Rosneft pacts render it a company that absolutely deserves a position on all Foolish versions of My Watchlist.