I was somewhat taken aback that such an important energy story was relegated to the eighth page of the first section in The Wall Street Journal's weekend edition. After all, a major gas and oil sharing agreement between Russia and China -- which has been under discussion for a full decade -- is hardly an afterthought. Indeed, it's arguable that events of the past week have cemented Russia's role as the emerging center of the energy world.
Amid Friday preparations for the weekend, you may have missed the announcement that the world's biggest energy supplier and its largest consumer had signed a series of agreements. For starters, beginning in 2018 Russia's giant Gazprom will begin shipping 38 billion cubic meters of gas annually to China. That figure, which is intended to escalate subsequently to about 60 billion cubic meters annually, compares to the 33 billion cubic meters that Germany, currently Gazprom's largest customer, received from the company in 2012.
Sharing the crude
Further, Russia will approximately double its current oil supplies to China, while simultaneously cutting state-owned China National Petroleum (CNPC) in on stakes in Russian oil fields. The agreements were signed in the Kremlin during Chinese President Xi Jinping's first official trip aboard.
Those agreements augment Russia's shifting focus toward Asia in the face of declining demand from traditional European markets. Six months ago, Russia and Japan inked a pact to develop plans for a $7 billion liquefied natural gas plant at Vladivostok on Russia's Pacific coast. Gas will be supplied to the plant through the planned "Strength of Siberia" pipeline system, which will be part of a $50 billion Gazprom development program in the eastern part of the country.
Finally, CNPC will work with oil giant Rosneft in the development of onshore and Russian Arctic fields. Last April, the Russian company signed partnership deals covering the Kara Sea in the Arctic and other areas with both ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and Italy's Eni (NYSE:E). Through the agreement with Exxon, Rosneft will obtain a 30% interest in a batch of ExxonMobil projects in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, onshore in the U.S., and in Canada.
Done with the oligarchs
As if the group of China pacts weren't sufficient to raise Russia's already prominent energy profile, on Thursday Rosneft completed the purchase of TNK-BP, a 10-year-old, often contentious venture between a group of Russian oligarchs and BP (NYSE:B). That partnership has been supplying 15 million tons of oil a year to China. It's acquisition catapulted Rosneft into the No. 1 spot among listed oil producers.
As a result of the TNK-BP sale, BP now holds a 20% stake in Rosneft, since it was partially compensated with Rosneft stock in the deal. It's therefore an indirect partner of Exxon and Eni in their respective projects. In addition, it's relationship with CNPC -- with which it is remediating Iraq's giant Rumaila oil field -- has been enhanced.
One very good read
If you're an energy investor -- and we all should be to some extent -- then, a superb tome is available on the subject of oil and gas in Russia. Given the country's rising status in hydrocarbons production, I suggest that Fools peruse "Wheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Power in Russia." In the book, author Thane Gustafson, a professor of political science at Georgetown University, details events in the country's energy sector since the 1980s.
Chapters four and 11 are especially relevant to those who approach the subject largely as investors. Both chapters deal with the arrival of foreign companies whose express purpose has been to boost (and profit from) Russia's outmoded oil and gas technology. The first arrivals occurred in the 1990s, and the second began at the outset of this century. Included is a detailed look at TNK-BP, from which sides of the venture ended up partaking handsomely, albeit following a steady stream of onerous contretemps.
Also discussed is oil-field services leader Schlumberger's (NYSE:SLB) more benign movement into the country, where it began to gain a toehold a decade and a half ago. And there is a look at Royal Dutch Shell's (NYSE:RDS-B) misadventures on remote and desolate Sakhalin Island. The company was forced a half-dozen years ago to sell its operating position in Sakhalin-2 to Gazprom for a ridiculous $7.45 billion, rather than the $20 billion that Shell had originally advanced as its concept of a fair market value.
Assessing the future
Looking ahead, Gustafson asserts:
The history of the global oil industry over the past twenty years demonstrates its importance as a high-tech knowledge industry. The latest and most spectacular illustration of this is the renaissance of oil and gas production in the United States from shale gas and tight oil, the products of entrepreneurship and innovation. But...there is every bit as much potential for a similar renaissance in Russia, in the very center of the Soviet oil and gas industry, the Volga-Urals, and West Siberia.
Our task as energy investors, it seems to me, is to keep close tabs on events in this frequently volatile country, especially as they affect western companies with connections to it. I'm referring especially to ExxonMobil and BP, two companies that stand to benefit from or be damaged by Russian ebbs and flows.