As last week came to a close, senior executives from Big Oil could be found cooling their jets -- literally and figuratively -- in the far northern Russian city of Salekhard. The city sits near the Yamal Peninsula, a gas-rich jut of land that sticks out into the Arctic Ocean.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had invited energy representatives to Salekhard to discuss the possibility of partnerships to develop the gas. Among the attendees were the likes of Total
Gazprom, which supplies about a quarter of Europe's natural gas, is beginning to see its reserves decline in its Siberian fields and is looking to Yamal to make up part of the difference. At the same time, the Western companies would be able to contribute technology far more sophisticated than Gazprom's.
But from the perspective of the companies, there's also a need to keep Russia's recent history in mind. During the past several years, as commodities prices were rising, and Russia was becoming an energy powerhouse, Putin thought nothing of playing hardball with such integrated oil companies as Shell
Now, however, with natural gas prices having plummeted, Russia has little to lose by tapping Western energy expertise -- and funds -- to develop Yamal. Then, should those prices head back north, I can't think of anything to stop them from playing the same sort of games that they undertook with Shell a couple of years ago. At that time, they stripped the company of its operating position on Sakhalin Island and turned it over to Gazprom for minimal compensation.
There are also those who believe that Putin et al have turned over a new leaf and that he meant what he said when he told the executives, "We are ready for broad partnership and that is why we invited you here." Maybe. But the key for the companies, it seems to me, is the exercise of extreme caution.
In the meantime, while it's had scrapes with Russian officials, ExxonMobil has held its own with the nation's officials more strongly than its peers. Should Yamal partnerships take shape, Fools will have yet another reason to favor the biggest member of Big Oil
Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't have financial interests in any of the companies mentioned above. StatoilHydro ASA and Total SA are Motley Fool Income Investor selections. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy that is always hot.