Guess who has two thumbs and may have just stolen secrets from American energy companies?
While much of the world has been focused on ISIS and the conflict in Iraq, a group of Russian hackers working on a project code-named Energetic Bear were discovered planting malware into computers at critical energy infrastructure across the U.S. and Europe that could steal documents and potentially disrupt operations at power plants, the electricity grid, or even oil and gas pipelines. This group of hackers is believed to either work for or alongside Russian government intelligence. If this is true, then we can also assume that the potentially stolen data is in the hands of Gazprom and Rosneft, the two largest oil and gas companies that are also partially owned by the state.
The knee-jerk reaction to this will likely stir some of those old Cold War sentiments. In reality, though, if it is true that Gazprom and Rosneft were stealing secrets from U.S.-based energy companies, then it's quite possibly one of the dumbest things it could have done right now. Let's take a look at what Russia could actually gain from stealing U.S. secrets, and why it may have shot itself in the foot in the process.
What's to gain?
The first thing that makes this news a bit of a head-scratcher is what these two companies could gain from stealing industry secrets. An analysis of this attack at CNNMoney suggested that these companies could find out where major oil companies like Exxonmobil (NYSE:XOM) or BP (NYSE:BP) have found oil and gas reserves and could beat them to it. This almost makes no sense whatsoever. First, any project that BP and Exxonmobil have in Russia is via a joint venture with one of these two companies, and the chances of Rosneft and Gazprom looking outside Russia or the former Soviet satellite nations is far-fetched. Why would they need to? Both companies have a pretty cushy relationship with the state, and their resource potential in Russia is immense. Rosneft estimates its recoverable resources in Russia to be 338 billion barrels, and Gazprom has over 1,100 trillion cubic feet of proved, probable, and possible gas reserves in country.
The most likely item that Russian oil and gas producers would want is information on how to extract unconventional resources using more advanced technology such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Access to this technology -- and protection from political sanctions -- is one of the major reasons that Russian companies have signed joint ventures with Western companies in the first place. If it were to have access to this technology and expertise without the need to take on a partner, it could cut these players out and develop Russia's unconventional resources on their own. This would give Gazprom, Rosneft, and, by default, Russia much greater control of their own resources and command of the global oil and gas market.
What they could lose in the process
These major projects that are in the works at Russian oil and gas fields will take more than just technology and know-how, they will also take immense amounts of capital. The deal between Exxon and Rosneft to explore offshore regions in the Russian Arctic and the Black Sea is expected to cost upwards of $500 billion to get off the ground, and Gazprom and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A) (NYSE:RDS-B) have a similar arctic exploration program in place.
If this Energized Bear hacking scandal were to be linked to Russian oil and gas companies, then Western companies might want to reconsider some of these projects. Also, Western companies pulling out of Russia would likely reduce the connections between them and Western businesses, which would increase the likelihood of sanctions as a result of its actions in both Crimea and Ukraine.
Even though Rosneft and Gazprom are giants of the industry, shouldering the financial load -- and the political risk -- of cutting out Western partners and taking these projects on by themselves would significantly delay their development. Considering how much is at stake in these massive fields, it seems almost silly to compromise these partnerships by stealing data.
What a Fool believes
Cyber security is quite possibly the last risk you would consider when analyzing an oil and gas company, but this recent hacking goes to show that it's real and could impact a company even as large as Exxonmobil. This incident in and of itself isn't a huge threat to the operations of any of these companies that have partnerships in Russia. But if Russian companies were somehow able to obtain data on how to better access unconventional sources, it could limit the amount of potential deals available in some of the worlds largest, and most unexplored, oil and gas fields.