BP has lost Russia's brave new frontier. So where next?

The British oil giant has reinvented itself since the Gulf of Mexico spill, but it will have to find new markets to impress investors, writes Mark Leftly
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The Independent Online

It is not obvious from the declining share price, but BP has had its best 12 months for access to new oil and gas blocks – tracts of land both on-shore and off-shore – for a decade.

Drilling opportunities have been signed up in Azerbaijan, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Indonesia, and, just last week, BP took a 30 per cent interest in 21 blocks in India.

That last deal, a joint venture with Reliance Industries worth $7.2bn (£4.4bn), should have been big news. Instead, this was completely overshadowed as BP suffered arguably its worst week since the lows of the Gulf of Mexico disaster last year.

On Wednesday, ExxonMobil announced that it was teaming up with Rosneft in a $3.2bn deal to develop Russia's Arctic oilfields. In January, BP agreed a $10bn share swap with Rosneft to explore what is considered one of the last great frontiers of big oil, but was met with fierce legal and political resistance from its existing Russian partners in its TNK-BP venture.

Having been replaced by its great rival, BP then faced the ignominy of seeing its Russian offices raided as part of a lawsuit brought against the company by minority shareholders in TNK-BP. They claim that BP's representatives on the joint-venture vehicle were acting in the interests of the British giant, not TNK-BP.

Back at the Gulf of Mexico, there were reports that the Deepwater Horizon site was still leaking, while a US judge found that thousands of fishermen and businesses affected by the spill could sue for punitive damages under maritime law.

To cap it off, two-thirds of those who voted in a poll for the London Evening Standard, a sister publication of The Independent on Sunday, thought that BP boss Bob Dudley should go.

However, many in the industry believe that Dudley should be praised for refocusing BP since he became chief executive last October. He was forced into a $30bn disposal programme to raise funds to pay for the spill, and has, according to a leading sector figure, been able sell the assets at a premium to the price analysts had valued them at in their forecasts.

More importantly, BP has sold downstream assets, such as refineries and distribution networks. "BP has returned to being more of an upstream [exploration and production] company," says a leading industry expert. "They can now go out and find new assets, not just refine what they have. There is more upside and potential [growth] for the shareholder."

The Russia deal, though, was a vital exploration play for this leaner, more buccaneering group. Having lost that major opportunity, there is feverish speculation in the City as to where BP might head next.

Asia and Africa: Where the money is

With economic growth more than double that of the global average, China's oil consumption is second only to the US. BP has operated in China since the 1970s, and in September, the state approved the company's purchase of a 41 per cent stake in a block in the South China Sea.

However, the industry expert points out that China does not have massive reserves on its doorstep. Rather, BP is positioning itself as a potential partner for China's huge oil interests around the world.

"China's trying to buy oil and gas around the world, and it is one of the great issues in the industry," he says. "BP can do more with China's companies as a strategic play to gain access elsewhere."

This would be particularly helpful in getting a foothold in the lucrative African market, from which China got 30 per cent of its oil imports in 2008. BP has shown an interest in the continent in recent years, for example, taking a stake in Chariot Oil & Gas's venture in Namibia.

However, a leading oil and gas banker points out that BP has no existing advantage in most of the African market, meaning that governments might well choose majors that are not tainted by recent disasters to explore their waters and land.

"Why would an oil minister choose BP when there's Exxon, Total and Shell?" he says. "If there's a safety problem, they'll be asked why on earth they chose BP, and get fired."

A country where the BP brand could prove strong is Libya, where the company already has a $1bn exploration deal – though this will have to be ratified by the country's new regime.

"I guess a British company will be popular there, given our support for the new government," says a former BP executive, although he adds that the potential in Libya might not be great enough to describe it as a major new market for a company the size of BP.

South America: Welcomed with open arms

It is generally agreed that BP has not made the most of opportunities in South America. True, last year BP did take an interest in 10 Brazilian blocks, through a $7bn deal with Devon Energy, but there is an argument that other majors have stolen a march.

"You see the big IOCs [international oil companies] down there – Exxon, Sinopec – and you wonder whether BP should follow," says an industry source.

"There's good heavy oil in Latin America and even if BP can't get the size of fields that it wants, sometimes it's better to start off small than not go in at all."

The source points out that Peru could soon become an option. The state oil company, Petroperu, is looking to bring in Western partners to help develop its vast reserves.

"The other thing is [that] transparency of most of the companies that BP could partner with in South America is a hell of a lot better than places like Russia," the source adds.

The Arctic: Mission impossible?

BP would like to get back into Russia. Unlike BP's proposed deal with Rosneft, ExxonMobil has not agreed to swap shares. Some argue there is no reason that BP, if and when it sorts out its problems with TNK-BP, could not sign a separate deal with Rosneft, which seems to be the domestic group that Vladimir Putin has backed as its Arctic exploration champion.

"I don't think the Arctic is closed to BP," argues one leading dealmaker. "Exxon only has four blocks and there is a lot of acreage to explore. Exxon and BP are the leaders in those harsh, ice-covered conditions. BP's technology could still be used and ... Russia needs that technical expertise to get to that oil and gas."

Given the events of the past week, that would be quite some comeback.