Its deal to seek out Arctic oil with Russian rival Rosneft appears to be over.
Beleaguered oil supermajor BP (LSE: BP) aimed to bounce back from its disastrous spill in the Gulf of Mexico by hunting oil in the vast wastes of the Russian Arctic.
Torn between two partners
The problem is that, in seeking to team up with Russian giant OAO Rosneft, BP started two-timing its existing Russian partner, Alfa-Access-Renova (AAR).
On 14 January, BP announced a ground-breaking deal with state-owned Rosneft that would see the two groups form a partnership to drill in the Arctic. To cement this alliance, BP and Rosneft would swap shares worth $7.8 billion (£4.8 billion), exchanging 5% of BP for 9.5% of Rosneft.
However, the four Russian billionaires who control AAR -- including Mikhail Fridman, Russia's seventh-richest man -- were far from happy that BP was courting Rosneft behind their backs. Hence, the spurned oligarchs applied for, and obtained, a court injunction preventing BP from getting into bed with Rosneft.
As a compromise, BP and Rosneft offered to buy out AAR's billionaires by paying $32 billion for their half-stake in the highly profitable TNK-BP joint venture. With TNK-BP valued at around $44 billion, this deal would have delivered a $10 billion premium to AAR.
Set up as a 50/50 partnership in 2003, TNK-BP now provides almost a quarter of BP's output and accounts for a fifth of its reserves. In the first quarter of this year, TNK-BP's profits gushed 91% to $2.4 billion, making it a big money-spinner for both BP and AAR.
Loss of trust
Of course, when partners stray, trust tends to go out of the window. Thus, AAR has refused to lift its injunction as it doubts whether BP and Rosneft will deliver on their proposed £20 billion buyout of TNK-BP.
Things came to a head at midnight last night, when an extended deadline for sealing the BP-Rosneft tie-up expired without agreement. As a result, BP and AAR confirmed their commitment to their existing partnership and, in effect, have put Rosneft back on the shelf.
BP reports that the BP-AAR-Rosneft talks will continue, although the ending of BP's exclusivity agreement now leaves Rosneft free to seek new partners.
All the same, this saga has become somewhat embarrassing for BP's CEO Bob Dudley, who is keen to re-focus the business on non-US fields and faster-growing economies.
BP and BRICs
Already this year, BP has signed a $7.2 billion deal with India's Reliance Industries to explore deepwater fields off India's coast. In 2010, BP inked a similar deal to explore offshore Brazil, plus it agreed a tie-up with Chinese state-owned Cnooc to drill in the South China Sea.
Even so, losing the opportunity to explore Russia's Kara Sea is a big disappointment for BP, its directors and owners. With potential reserves of up to 100 billion barrels of oil, the Kara fields would have been a huge producer for BP and its proposed Russian ally.
Therefore, if BP, AAR and Rosneft can't reach a past-the-post agreement, then BP will probably have to look outside of Russia for its next big alliance. In the meantime, BP's rivals -- perhaps including Royal Dutch Shell (LSE: RDSB) -- will be queuing up to strike a deal with Rosneft.
What's the lesson here?
As I write, BP's share price is ahead just over 1% at 443.7p, having fallen as low as 434p at the market open. In other words, BP's shareholders seem to have shrugged off this latest setback.
BP should learn a lesson from this setback. When seeking out revolutionary or transformational deals around the globe, it pays not to tread on your existing partners' toes!
More from Cliff D'Arcy:
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