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$100 oil and the centuries-old art of the deal in Russia

One side story about hundred-dollar oil is how the Big Oil companies are being forced to scramble, grovel and just plain grit their teeth in sorry deals.

Take Russia. Russians are among the most amazing negotiators in the world. Century after century, decade after decade, they somehow get westerners to fall over themselves to trade the store for access to the Russian market.

In the 19th century, Immanuel Nobel, the ingenious father of dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, moved his entire family to Russia to try to sell his know-how in the laboratory to successive czars. He went home poor. Five decades later, one of his grandsons – the oilman Emanuel Nobel – got rich, but then had to flee the Bolshevik revolution disguised as a peasant.

In the 1920 and 1930s, American industrialists literally built the spine of the Soviet economy – car factories, steel plants, dams – and as part of the deal gave the Soviets the technology needed to do so. Suffice it to say that Stalin then asked the foreigners to leave, and the Soviets started doing the work themselves.

So it is in Russian energy today. During the 1990s, western companies got access to some of Russia’s most technologically difficult-to-develop oil and natural gas fields. Now that they have delivered the know-how, majority ownership in most of those deals has reverted back to state-controlled companies (it didn't help that the companies appear to have gotten sweetheart terms), and no new such access being granted.

And from there, a clear Russian energy policy has emerged: foreign oil companies can have access to Russian energy – but only if it’s part of a swap of assets elsewhere in the world. That is, you can buy a quarter of my house if I can own part of yours.

On its face, that sounds fair, especially to the Russian side, which as usual is negotiating shrewdly. But what about the western side -- what are they giving and what are they receiving for that access?

Which leads me to two German deals for access to a supergiant natural gas field called Yuzhno Russkoye, or South Russian. This northwest Siberian field contains the equivalent of 5.1 billion barrels of oil.

Last month, Germany’s BASF won 25% minus one share of the field. In exchange, Gazprom increased its share in Wingas, a hugely lucrative German utility, from 35% to 50% minus one share. BASF's access to a quarter of Yuzhno Russkoye arguably wouldn’t be a bad deal if the company could “book” the reserves; that’s how Wall Street values oil companies – how many barrels of oil equivalent they actually own. If BASF gets 1.25 billion barrels of oil equivalent, one might be able to make a case for trading hard assets such as a 2,000-kilometer-long European natural gas pipeline network and an extensive natural gas and fiber optic marketing business.

Whether BASF is booking those reserves hasn’t been discussed publicly as yet. But one has to wonder after Gazprom's last couple of deals – with France’s Total and Norway’s Statoil in Russia’s supergiant Shtokman natural gas field. Gazprom has kept all the reserves to itself. But perhaps the Germans pulled succeeded where the French and the Norwegians failed.

Meanwhile, German’s largest utility, E.ON, is also negotiating for a stake of 25% minus one share in Yuzhno Ruskoye (Gazprom will own the remaining 50% plus two shares). E.ON is talking about a payment of 1.2 billion euros, plus just under a 50% stake in the German company’s Hungarian natural gas trading and storage units, and other unspecified assets. One possibility under discussion is a piece of E.ON’s gas-to-power plants in Great Britain. Again, there's no public discussion of booking reserves.

As oilmen friends tell me in email exchanges, the Germans must know what they are doing. But I still wonder -- even if one can book reserves, one is essentially exchanging an unguaranteed cash flow -- the sale of natural gas -- for hard assets. To me, both deals have the ring of selling one’s seed corn for cash.

Yet, if the past is any teacher, expect more such deals.

That's how oilmen are having to deal with the world of hundred-dollar oil.

Photo: NCreatures
Rights: Creative Commons

Editorial Notes: See original for background and more articles. -BA

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