ExxonMobil Shareholders Should Say “Nyet”

This behemoth oil company needs to boost oil reserves, but sticking to plans in Russia may not be the strategy shareholders will continue to tolerate much longer.

John Licata
John Licata
Jul 23, 2014 at 4:41PM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

In a recent Reuters article titled "Russia's Putin not blinking in last chance saloon," author Timothy Heritage says Russian President Vladimir Putin "seems more intent on bluffing his way through than on trying to use this pivotal moment to emerge as a peacemaker by ending a conflict that has caused the worst tensions with the West since the Cold War." I agree with Heritage's view, and further believe shareholders of ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) should be questioning the oil behemoth's presence in Russia. 

My concern is growing that Exxon's strategy to go anywhere in order to boost oil production is making this stock much more risky for investors than one would typically think. Specifically, I'm referring to the company's larger dependence on Russia to reverse a slowing production profile. 

The Russian connection
If you aren't familiar with Exxon's presence in Russia, the company has had a business presence there for over 20 years, and through its Neftegas subsidiary, it operates and owns 30% of one of the largest foreign direct investment (FDI) spending projects in all of Russia through the upstream Sakhalin-1 project located in Far East Russia. 

Sakhalin-1 produces roughly 182,000 gross barrels of oil equivalent per day (boepd), so Exxon's stake is 54,000 boepd. At its current production rate, Sakhalin, the only producing Russian asset for Exxon thus far, is yielding output equivalent to 1% of the company's 2013 gross production  That figure is really nothing to sneeze at, but clearly Exxon's $3 billion exploration budget bet in Russia is aimed on the bigger prize, the country's 2.3 billion barrels of potential recoverable oil and 485 billion cubic meters of gas.

Earlier this year Exxon announced a new joint venture with Rosneft to explore for a massive oil find in the Arctic Ocean. Keep in mind the U.S. just imposed sanctions on Rosneft, which may end up hitting Exxon in the wallet since it has plans to drill horizontal wells and boost flow from older wells in western Siberia. 

The threat
Additional sanctions may not seem so far fetched against Russian energy interests on the heels of the tragic Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 brought down over east Ukraine and concerns Russia may have been involved in the incident. With an increased number of funds looking to divert capital away from Russia, Exxon may be about to get increased shareholder flack for moving forward with such gusto in Russia despite increased sanctions on the country by the West. 

Let's face it, when ExxonMobil reports Q214 earnings on July 31, it needs to address its recent expansion into Russia and the company's commitment to the region, especially with growing political frailty between the U.S. and Russian governments. 

ExxonMobil's CEO Rex Tillerson has previously said business will proceed as usual in Russia, yet it's hard to avoid seeing talk of Russian sanctions dominate the news in recent days. Therefore shareholders should demand more assurances from management, especially with the company seemingly pinning future production on the country. 

There are already concerns the Kashagan oil project in Kazakhstan (just outside the Russian Federation), in which Exxon owns a 18% stake, will be further delayed until 2015.

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Bottom line
Why is this so important? The Kashagan project was expected to eclipse the 1.5 millions barrels of oil per day that all of the company's subsidiaries generated last year.

All of this has me thinking Exxon may need to lay off the Russian vodka and consider acquiring less geographical risky production from North American plays. This makes me cautious on ExxonMobil's valuation near term.