Why ExxonMobil Probably Won't Lose in Russia

I suppose it could be classified as at least semi-comical. As you likely know, following the announcement of a new round of sanctions by the U.S. and its European allies, Russian President Vladimir Putin has figuratively wagged his finger at Western governments and their oil and gas companies that are currently involved in Russia. Among others, that contingent includes Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B  ) , and BP (NYSE: BP  ) .

Perhaps the most noteworthy target of the new sanctions was Igor Sechin, the country's de facto energy leader and chairman of Russian oil giant Rosneft. Putin's response was a clear warning that additional strictures would essentially result in a re-evaluation of the companies now working in the Russian Federation. He cited several important sectors, "including energy."

Russia can't afford to lose its technology tutors
It seems, however, that the diminutive leader has it backwards. Oil and gas sales make up the largest segment of the Russian economy, which is on decidedly shaky ground already. So with the country's energy technology expertise lagging far behind that of the aforementioned companies, his country would clearly be wounded severely by an eradication of its energy ventures with the West.

Let's take a glimpse at the precise nature of some of those relationships:

  • Exxon has long been the operator of the Sakhalin-1 project on the desolate island of the same name off Russia's East Coast. It's also involved with Rosneft in a far bigger collection of projects that involve exploring the frigid Kara Sea in the Russian Arctic, along with a portion of the Black Sea. At the same time, the biggest member of Big Oil is lending its expertise to a nascent fracking operation in Siberia. Thus far, however, Exxon has invested relatively little time or money in its newer Russian projects.
  • Shell has a 27.5% interest in Sakhalin-2. Before 2006, the company was the operator of the project. That year, however, the Russian government forced the company to sell much of its then majority interest and operator status to Gazprom, the country's huge gas company, for a bargain basement price.
  • BP owns nearly 20% of Rosneft. It's stake in the behemoth company resulted from its 10-year joint venture interest in TNK-BP, once Russia's third-largest oil producer. The venture was formed in 2003 by BP and a group of Russian oligarchs.

While all participants profited nicely from TNK-BP, the battling between the two sides became virtually nonstop. Both sold out to Rosneft a year ago, with much of BP's compensation taking the form of Rosneft stock. BP CEO Bob Dudley, who ran the joint venture and at one point, was forced to escape from Russia and lead TNK-BP's operations from an unknown location -- probably Paris -- today sits on Rosneft's board.

A necessary opinion change
While ExxonMobil has gotten on with the Russians better than have most of its peers, its relationship with Putin and his minions hasn't always been rosy. Indeed, several years ago Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's CEO, stated that Exxon wouldn't enter into additional Russian relationships until more clarity could be obtained regarding the treatment of foreign companies in the country.

But necessity occasionally results in the eating of one's words. Amid its struggle to maintain its production levels and its reserves base, Exxon has found it necessary to team up with a partner in a country whose locals can often be capricious. After all, the Kara Sea alone is thought to hold huge amounts of oil and gas.

So, while Exxon Vice President David Rosenthal told his audience on the company's post-release call Thursday that all systems remain go between Russia and ExxonMobil, the choice to maintain that status may not lie with the company. Indeed, the next step in the imposition of tighter sanctions on Putin et al probably would involve a prohibition of U.S. -based -- and probably all western-domiciled -- companies from doing business in Russia.

A Foolish takeaway
What does all this mean for investors in Big Oil? Almost certainly a forced pullout of the companies from Russia would lead to an immediate escalation of oil prices, benefiting the companies and their shareholders, at least over the short term. But should operations go as planned for Exxon and Russia, however, the result would also seem to be similarly beneficial (and needed) additions to the company's oil and gas cache.

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David Smith

A longtime securities analyst and multiple-term member of The Wall Street Journal's All-Star Research team, Dave specializes in energy and natural resources.

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