No matter how small an energy company is, it is going to have to deal with the politics of energy. However, independent oil and gas producer Noble Energy (NASDAQ:NBL) had no idea what it started when it agreed to drill in the Eastern Mediterranean between Cyprus and Israel. Now, the company is unwillingly at the heart of political deals that could see the formation of a new type of OPEC, one that would include both Russia and the production of natural gas. Let's take a look at how it got here and whether making enemies with 45% of the world's oil wealth means trouble for Noble.
It seemed like a good idea at the time
Back in the mid '90s, the management team of Noble -- which was at the time called Samedan Oil Corp -- was contacted about the possibility of drilling for natural gas off the coast of Israel. Noble wasn't the first choice, but big oil players like ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and BP (NYSE:BP) weren't going to risk their big production sharing contracts in the Middle East for a highly speculative field in Israel. Noble didn't have any connections to Arab countries, so the company took a flier and took an operational stake in several operating leases in the Eastern Mediteranean. Fifteen years later and now the company and its partners have stumbled on more than 35 trillion cubic feet of potential resources in just a part of its leases.
If this particular field had been anywhere else in the world, it would barely make a news headline. Since it's in the Eastern Mediterranean, though, it has ruffled the feathers of some of the biggest players in the oil and gas space, most notably Russia. It's national natural gas company Gazprom and Norwegian company Statoil (NYSE:EQNR) provide the European continent with more than 40% of its natural gas, and natural gas represents 10% of Russia's GDP. This natural gas find from Noble is one of the few natural gas fields that could potentially supply Europe using pipelines, which would break the duopoly. Based on recent backdoor political conversations, Russia isn't happy about it.
Sowing the seeds for a new global power in the oil and gas markets
Both Russia and OPEC have been seen much better times than recently. Russia's state budgets have been tight lately, and since it relies on oil and gas royalties for 50% of its revenue, it needs oil above $100 a barrel to maintain its healthy budget. OPEC has had its own problems as well. Production issues in places like Nigeria and Libya have made the group increasingly reliant on the other members to pick up the slack, and increased production from other parts of world like America's shale boom has resulted in less influence in the market. These events, and Noble's gas discoveries in the Med, may bring these two factions together in ways that many didn't think possible.
In a meeting between Saudi Arabia's head of intelligence and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Saudis made it clear that it would offer "cooperation" in the form of billion-dollar investments in gas processing and petrochemical facilities in the Russian market to boost its competitiveness against Eastern Mediterranean gas, and even use its influence with Turkey if necessary to prevent natural gas pipelines.
But here is the real doozy, this could set the wheels in motion toward a strategic alliance between Russia and OPEC. Combined, they would represent more than 45% of the world's oil production and 37% of the world's natural gas supply. This would give the combined group an unprecedented level of price control and a resurgence as the pre-eminent power in the global oil markets.
What a Fool believes
Noble Energy probably didn't realize the political consequences that an immense amount of natural gas in the Mediterranean, but now it finds itself managing an extremely politically contentious environment. If this was a bigger oil and gas company like an ExxonMobil or a BP, this would be less of a big deal because the amount of natural gas for them would be rather inconsequential. For Noble, though, this represents more than 30% of the company's proved reserves. If Russia and Saudi Arabia were to obstruct the development plans of this field, it could spell trouble for the company. Also, it will also be difficult for Noble to sell off any interest in this field because Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East that wouldn't be too pleased with companies with ties there if they were to cooperate with Israel.
Only time will tell if these political negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Russia ever amount to anything, but the implications of these two forces uniting are huge for the international price of oil. High-level deals like this simply go to show that even the biggest players in the industry are extremely small cogs in a much larger, more complex machine than many of us realize.