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Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Sunday Business Section: Another One Bites the Dust (Investor in Russia, that is)

Forbes reports on what happens when you invest in Russia: The Kremlin steals your investment, and you leave feeling lucky it didn't burn down your house as well. When you leave the Russian market, your stock price jumps even if you lost your shirt. The Kremlin continues its practice of systemmatically driving out all foreign influence from Russia, still believing after so many failures that it can be successful on its own.

BP played Russian roulette, and if it didn't exactly win, it also didn't lose. It will have to hand control of the Russian Kovykta gas fields to state-controlled Gazprom, but it will get paid $900 million, a far better outcome than might have been expected. Gazprom (other-otc: OGZPY - news - people ) announced that it would be buying TNK-BP’s 62.7% stake in Rusia Petroleum, the company that holds the license for the eastern Siberian gas fields. The deal also invovles TNK-BP (other-otc: TNKBF - news - people ) selling its 50.0% interest in Eastern Siberian Gas, which is building the project. TNK-BP is a joint venture between the British oil company and the Russian consortium the Alfa Group, controlled by billionaire Michael Fridman. Though not unexpected, the news is a blow for BP (nyse: BP - news - people ), which has invested $600 million in the project so far. The project, which is expected to cost a total of $20 billion, would also have brought BP substantial gains, as the fields' gas reserves are estimated at 1,900 billion cubic meters. Still BP and its joint venture could have got a far worse deal than they have. Though $900 million significantly undervalues the gas fields, things could have been a lot worse, had the Kremlin just confiscated the stake.

“$900 million is a lot better than $0,” Andrew Neff, an analyst at Global Insight told Forbes.com.

Since the Kremlin threatened to withdraw TNK-BP’s license for Kovykta earlier this year, furious negotiations have been under way to work out a deal that could benefit both parties. Under the agreement that has been reached, TNK-BP will be able to acquire a 25.0% stake in the gas fields. In addition, without revealing specifics, Gazprom, has announced that the companies are launching a $3 billion global venture. According to Neff, Gazprom, will have its eyes on BP’s liquefied natural gas assets, and downstream gas distribution network in Europe. So far European Union states have been wary of giving Russia a large stake in downstream gas distribution. A joint venture with BP would give Gazprom access to this market, in return for maintaining a minority presence in Russia. Since the saga began, BP has been keen to stress that as the project is in the very early stages, the loss of Kovykta doesn't have an impact on the company's current valuation. “The gas fields are a plum asset but are not easily developed and monetized tomorrow,” agreed Neff. BP’s troubles in Russia began earlier this year when Kremlin threatened to withdraw the company’s license for Kovykta, saying that it was not meeting production targets. The field is currently producing 2.5 billion cubic meters a year, rather than the 9 billion it is meant to under its contract. However, regulators had indicated that if Gazprom were allowed to join the project the licensing issues would disappear, reinforcing the view that Kremlin’s concerns were political and largely to do with a recent drive to push foreign energy giants out of Russia.

Market insecurities about investments in Russia have been heightened by the frosty relations between Britain and the Kremlin since the poisoning of a former KGB operative in London. But even before that Royal Dutch Shell (nyse: RDS-B - news - people )and its Japanese partners Mitsui (other-otc: MITSF - news - people ) and Mitsubishi (other-otc: MSBHY - news - people ) were forced to drastically reduce their stake in the Sakhalin-2 energy site in eastern Russia. In January, the Russian cabinet approved a bill preventing majority foreign ownership of companies that are categorized as “strategic” including energy. (See: " BP Losing Grasp On Siberian Gas"). Shares in BP were up 5.50 pence (11 cents), or 0.9%, to £5.85 ($11.69), in early afternoon trading in London.

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