BP in talks to sell stake in Russian joint venture TNK-BP

By bne IntelliNews June 1, 2012

bne -

Oil major BP announced on June 1 it has notified partner AAR of its intention to sell its 50% stake in joint venture TNK-BP, meaning the British-based company's Russian adventure looks to be over.

TNK-BP was thrown into crisis on Monday, May 28 when oligarch and member of the Alfa-Access-Renova (AAR) consortium of Russian tycoons that controls the other half of the company Mikhail Fridman quit as CEO.

The company is worth $40bn according to reports, but AAR put a substantially higher price tag on its stake last winter when the idea of a break-up of the partnership was first floated.

BP said in its statement that it was opening talks after receiving "unsolicited indications of interest" for its stake. BP said it was looking to pursue a potential sale, which is "consistent with BP's commitment to maximizing shareholder value."

BP's spokesman in Russia, Vladimir Buyanov, said that the shareholders' agreement between BP and AAR requires both parties to notify the other of offers to acquire their holdings. AAR has previously said that it could be interested in raising its stake in TNK-BP or swapping its TNK-BP stake for shares in BP.

The two partners have been at loggerheads for years. Set up in 2003 to much fanfare, President Vladimir Putin announced the joint venture on the floor of the House of Commons in the UK during a visit to the UK when relations between the two countries were at their zenith.

However, the straight 50-50 split left no one in charge and relations decayed steadily until in 2008 TNK-BP's CEO at the time and now chairman of BP, Robert Dudley, was virtually forced out and fled Russia complaining a campaign of "harassment." BP offered to buy AAR out for around $32bn at the time, BP sources said at the time, but was rebuffed by AAR.

Things got worse in January 2011 when BP negotiated a joint-venture deal with state-owned oil major Rosneft to explore and exploit the Russian Arctic territories, ignoring conditions in the TNK-BP shareholder agreement that suggested the deal should have been done in consultation with AAR. The subsequent dispute led to the collapse of the Rosneft-BP deal and a poisonous atmosphere in the TNK-BP boardroom.

A sale could raise around $30bn for BP, which would help to fund the ongoing cost of cleaning up the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the potential fines related to this. However, it would also cost BP annual dividends, which hit $3.7bn last year, and around 30% of its oil and gas production. All in all, the TNK-BP investment has been hugely profitable for the British firm, which has invested a total of $8bn but earned $19bn in dividends - typically around 10% of BP's profits - in spite of high Russian taxes on oil production.

Investors reacted positively to the news, with BP's shares at one point in morning trade up 5% at 415 pence on the news.

But the break-up of the JV spells trouble for BP, as Russia remains the biggest source of crude reserves. International oil companies are a dying breed as oil-rich countries increasingly take ownership of their own mineral wealth rather than allowing foreign companies to produce the reserves.

Increasingly, the majors are being forced into more technically difficult projects like shale oil deposits or the mooted Arctic deposits where their superior technology still gives them the advantage.

The sale will probably be good for BP, as the JV is no longer workable. At the same time, it means the British company will probably miss out on the development of the largely untouched Eastern Siberia, which could be the last big oil bonanza on the planet. Most of Russia's oil comes from big fields in Western Siberia discovered by the Soviets. However, these fields were so big the Soviet government never got round to exploring the eastern territories that have almost exactly the same geography.

For its part, the Kremlin will probably welcome another investor. There is a huge amount of difficult development work to do and the new government has made it clear that it will welcome foreigners - if they bring know-how and technology with their money. The break-up of the JV will also benefit AAR as they have the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of the unworkable joint-venture structure that will probably leave the Russian tycoons clearly in the driving seat.

The alternative is that the buyer of BP stake could turn out to be one of the giant Russian state-owned energy companies like Rosneft or Gazprom.

Bottom line is that despite BP's lucrative run in Russia and its attempt to move closer to the government and expand its footprint, its poorly structured JV and miscalculation in trying to do a deal the "Russian way" with Rosneft means the company's Russian adventure is over.

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