In Russia, BP Sees a Second Act


MOSCOW — Though its gushing well in the Gulf of Mexico is capped, BP seems doomed to years of hostile regulation and lawsuits in the United States.

But in Russia, the second-most important country for the company’s operations, BP’s fortunes are brighter than ever.

Russian companies are talking to BP about buying billions of dollars in oil fields and other assets to help it pay its gulf cleanup and compensation costs. Along with a partner, BP is planning to explore the rich oil fields in Russia’s Arctic waters, a sensitive region that is off limits in the United States and Canada.

And BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, who is turning over the reins this Friday to Robert Dudley, is being welcomed onto the board of TNK-BP, the company’s 50-50 joint venture in Russia.

BP’s warm relationship with the Russians is a startling turnaround given how grim the situation was two years ago.

Mr. Dudley, who headed TNK-BP at that time, was forced into hiding in 2008 after escalating disputes with the government and BP’s Russian business partners led to the revocation of his work visa. Relations were so bad that Russian security agents raided the company’s offices in Moscow, arresting an analyst on industrial espionage charges.

But by August, it was all bear hugs when Mr. Hayward and Mr. Dudley visited Moscow and met with Igor I. Sechin, Russia’s deputy prime minister for energy policy and a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin.

“The bone of contention is largely removed,” said Vitaly Yermakov, the research director for Russian and Caspian energy at IHS CERA’s Moscow office, in a telephone interview.

A big reason for the thaw in relations is BP’s potential role in helping Russia further its global petroleum ambitions. A multinational energy giant based in London, BP intends to sell up to $30 billion in assets around the world to help stabilize its finances and pay for the estimated $32.2 billion in liabilities it expects to owe in connection with the gulf spill.

Russian companies — backed by a government that would like to see some Russian multinational energy giants — are very interested in buying.

Foremost among the potential bidders for BP assets is TNK-BP, the joint venture BP owns in partnership with several Russian oligarchs. TNK-BP is in talks to buy BP fields in Venezuela and Vietnam worth about $1.5 billion.

Stan Polovets, the chief executive of the consortium that represents the oligarchic partners in TNK-BP, said BP now has an “outstanding relationship” with the TNK-BP team.

“We appreciated that BP offered us the assets before they were shown to others,” he said in a telephone interview. “They could have gone to the Chinese or the Indians.”

And BP, though it had resisted hiring a Russian chief executive to run the TNK venture, was nonetheless gracious toward the Russian candidate, Maksim G. Barsky, once the decision was made, Mr. Polovets said. BP gave Mr. Barsky a six-month tour of its global operations, including stopovers in Alaska and Texas, in the midst of the spill response.

For their part, the Russian authorities eased up pressure on BP during the spill — resisting, as BP adviser Peter Necarsulmer put it, a natural inclination to follow the axiom of “If you can’t kick a man when he’s down, when can you kick him?” for the sake of exploring a deeper partnership with BP globally.

Fadel Gheit, senior oil analyst for Oppenheimer & Company, said Russia’s forbearance will pay dividends. “When people were saying, ‘BP’s days are numbered in the U.S.,’ Russia said, ‘We’ll take you,’ ” Mr. Gheit said. “Russia, by helping BP in its bleakest hour, will definitely raise its standing among Western nations.”

The warming in Russia is hardly trivial: BP’s standing with the Russian government and Russian business partners is at least as critical for the company as its future drilling prospects in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP has about a third of its global business and 40 percent of its shareholders in the United States. But Russia accounts for 840,000 barrels of oil a day, about a third of the company’s total global oil output, and more than the 665,000 barrels a day pumped in the United States.

TNK-BP also brought BP $1.7 billion last year for its share of dividends and allows the British company to claim vast reserves of oil on its books.

BP’s ambitions in Russia go well beyond TNK-BP. It has joint-venture agreements with Rosneft, the state oil company, for exploration off Sakhalin Island and on the Arctic shelf.

But development in those regions depends, as so much else here, on the goodwill of the Russian government. Under Mr. Putin, Russia has tightly restricted access for Western oil majors, with the exception of barter arrangements.

Russian authorities sought to establish a direct link between BP’s business inside the country and the company’s willingness to help the Russian energy major Gazprom expand abroad in a 2007 memorandum of understanding. Under that agreement, negotiated by Mr. Hayward, BP offered to help Gazprom make an acquisition outside of Russia. It was no small undertaking, as at the time Western governments were hesitant to see the already powerful Russian energy giant go global.

In exchange for this politically delicate task, BP would get help from Gazprom with its vitally important business inside Russia. Under the deal, Gazprom would buy a major Siberian gas field from TNK-BP that was on the verge of having its license revoked, solving that problem, and then sell back 25 percent if BP delivered a foreign asset to Gazprom.

After the gulf spill, BP revived talks on helping Gazprom expand its footprint outside Russia.

In the meantime, if BP sells some of its assets to its own joint venture in Russia, it will engender goodwill with the Russian authorities and its business partners, raise money and still leave BP with an indirect stake in the businesses.

Mikhail Fridman, the chairman of TNK-BP, said in a somewhat effusive interview with Bloomberg News that, beginning with the proposed asset purchases, the venture would embark on a major global expansion. It hopes to produce 50 percent of its petroleum outside Russia within a decade.

BP “can be a bridge to international diversification,” said Jeremy Huck, president of BP Russia, without commenting on any negotiations.

The cozier relations with Russia could also soften the ousting of Mr. Hayward, who became a reviled figure in Washington and the Gulf Coast before he was compelled to step down as BP’s chief executive. BP and TNK-BP both declined to disclose Mr. Hayward’s future compensation on the board of TNK-BP.

The first board vote to include Mr. Hayward will decide on the TNK-BP’s potential purchase of the BP’s assets outside Russia.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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