Black gold for high stakes

BP's coup in a small Caspian Sea deal is its first bid in a greater game. By Phil Reeves in Moscow and Gayane Afrikian in London
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In his usual low key, shaggy-dog manner, Eddie Whitehead makes light of the ceremony taking place on Wednesday on an offshore oil rig in the Caspian Sea. "I don't know what exactly is going to happen," he says. "They usually unveil a plaque or something."

A gaggle of big oil executives is be helicoptered to the platform from Baku, Azerbaijan. So will Foreign Office junior minister Derek Fatchett. Moscow and Washington will be represented. Oil specialists in Tehran will monitor events. So will officials in the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. So will President Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, and the rebels in Kabul.

As the first Western crude flows in the one part of the world out of bounds to Big Oil from 1917 to 1990, the event marks the fruition of seven years' work by Eddie on behalf of British Petroleum. "Eddie is Mr Caspian around here," says a BP colleague.

Mr Whitehead, whose official title is commercial director for BP Exploration, is impressed with President Heydar Aliyev for bringing the first leg of the Caspian Sea oil deal in on schedule. "Aliyev did it," he says. "That's really what the ceremony is about."

A former Politburo member under Brezhnev, ex-KGB officer and one-time head of shoe-making in the Soviet Union, Aliyev has survived coup attempts and a war with Armenia to claim the title of Father of Azerbaijan.

BP, meanwhile, is impressed with Mr Whitehead. Navigating the complex shoals of petro-diplomacy in one of the world's more unstable regions, he helped set up the Azerbaijan International Oil Consortium (AIOC) - the group of Western and Russian oil companies working with the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan to develop the Azeri sector of the Caspian Sea.

Then he helped get a small existing pipeline from Baku through Chechnya to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossisk cleared for use by the AIOC. The Azeri crude will be loaded aboard tankers heading down the Bosphorus bound for Western refineries.

Now Eddie is working on perhaps the most complex aspect of his task - determining where the main pipeline for Azeri crude will run. Along the same Chechnya route, or down through Turkey to the Mediterranean, or across the Black Sea and down through Greece to the Mediterranean?

The numbers are not huge. Last week BP reported operating profits (stripped of gains and losses on old inventory oil) of pounds 3.4bn. Azeri oil contributed exactly zero. Even after Wednesday it will not be a big earner: in the first stage the AIOC will pump only 80,000 to 88,000 barrels per day from the Caspian.

BP has a 17 per cent interest in the AIOC. Overall, the company, which is the third largest in the world after Shell and Exxon, produces 1.5 billion barrels of oil per day. Even when the Azeri fields come on line for real in 1999 the contribution to the bottom line will be modest. BP's main producing fields remain in the North Sea and on Alaska's north slopes.

Looking to the next century, BP is betting that exploration sites in Venezuela, Colombia and Australasia as well as the Caspian Sea will pick up the slack. Together, the Caspian fields of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan come nowhere near the oilfields of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.

They have slightly lower reserves than the North Sea. But crude can be extracted from the Caspian Sea more cheaply than from the North Sea, and BP's strategy is to go for oil that will remain profitable even if world prices drop from their current level of $19 per barrel to $12-16.

The real significance of BP's achievement in the Caspian is political. For much of this century US oil giants have dominated the world energy scene. Washington has been pre-eminent not only in Houston, but also in Riyadh and Kuwait City.

Now, with the opening up of the reserves of the former Soviet Union, the global oil game is entering a new phase. On pure geography, Europe and its oil companies look well positioned.

Washington is moving to counter the new geopolitics of petroleum. Traditionally, for example, the US has supported Armenia, not least because of the political muscle of the Armenian business community in the US, especially in California - a key electoral state for any president. The former Soviet republic has been the largest recipient of US aid outside Israel.

But, even though the fighting has stopped, Armenia has yet to settle its conflict with Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Now, lured by oil, the US is tilting away from Armenia to Azerbaijan. This year President Clinton received President Ali-yev in the White House.

In response, leaders in the region, such as Mr Aliyev, have played Europe and Iran off against Washington. Mr Aliyev allocated Amoco, Unocal, Exxon, and Pennzoil a 40 per cent stake in the AIOC. "Several times [former US National Security Adviser] Zbigniew Brzezinski was invited to Baku and met with Aliyev and representatives of the mass media," reports Shahin Hajiev, deputy director of the Baku-based Turan news agency.

For all this complexity, the Caucasus and central Asia remain little more than a taste of what is to come in the new oil game. The greatest potential profits for BP and the big oil companies lie not in this region, but in the former Soviet Union proper - and not only in Siberia, but in Russia's Eastern shores.

Last month Sergei Chernitsin, a spokesman for Oneximbank, said the Moscow- based financial powerhouse was "quite close to reaching an agreement with BP". The agreement was for BP to buy a 10 per cent stake in the Russian oil company AO Sidanko from Oneximbank. This would pave the way for a bid by BP and Sidanko for another Russian oil company, AO Rosneft.

As part of its shift to a market economy, Russia privatised its state natural gas monopoly Gazprom en bloc, but broke up the oil ministry into regional private companies.

Lukoil, the best-known Russian oil company, is a private group of three Siberian district operations of the Soviet oil ministry. Rosneft is the last big Russian oil company still to be privatised, with an "identifiable value" of $1.4bn, says investment bank Salomon Brothers.

BP, Sidanko and Oneximbank later distanced themselves from Oneximbank's announcement. A BP spokesman says only: "We are holding a number of discussions with a number of parties in Russia, including Sidanko." On Thursday Mr Chernitsin said: "We are negotiating with a number of international oil companies. We plan to finish the negotiations by year end."

On the same day, however, Shell and Gazprom, which is Russia's largest company, announced they are planning a joint bid for Rosneft. Thus the outlines of new West European-Russian alliances in the new oil game are beginning to emerge.

"We see the Caspian Sea and Russia as different risk centres," says Eddie Whitehead, packing his briefcase to fly to Baku for Wednesday's ceremony in Azerbaijan.

But he does not deny the fact that the knowledge he has accumulated in Russia's "near abroad" will not go amiss in advancing BP's interest in the main arena just opening up.

q Additional reporting by Peter Koenig.