Is it riskier to annoy Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin?
With an eye on the bottom line and massive drilling projects in the Arctic, Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE:XOM) still hasn’t announced whether to give in to White House pressure to skip a coming economic forum hosted by the Russian president in St. Petersburg.
The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, which is taking place in the former Leningrad from May 22 to May 24, normally attracts an array of corporate executives eager to strike billion-dollar deals with each other. This year, the Obama administration has successfully pressured some of America’s biggest companies, including Alcoa, Goldman Sachs, PepsiCo, Morgan Stanley and ConocoPhillips, to keep their top-level executives from attending, amid the worsening Ukraine crisis and U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia.
But Exxon Mobil, whose CEO Rex Tillerson sealed a deal with Russian energy giant Rosneft at last year’s conference to work together on a massive drilling project in the Russian Arctic, has not yet joined the exodus. Exxon representatives have given no statement on their plans for the conference. Bowing out could be a costly move considering the company has bet billions on the project.
“All projects remain on schedule,” Exxon representative Richard Keil told International Business Times, declining to go into detail about the company’s plans this year for the conference.
The agreement, signed before Putin himself, was one of 102 deals involving sectors from food and pharmaceuticals to oil and metals worth an estimated $300 billion that was solidified at last year’s conference. General Electric Chairman Jeffrey Immelt signed a cooperation agreement with Rosneft at the conference that involved jointly establishing an engineering center and a research and development facility. The chief executives of other American companies like Deere & Company, Citigroup, MetLife, Alcoa, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Visa, Chevron, Hill & Knowlton Strategies and Cisco Systems also attended last year.
Analysts expect Exxon Mobil executives, if not Tillerson himself, to attend the St. Petersburg forum. “The project is very exposed to political risk, but at the same time, critical to both companies and the Russian government, and they will do everything they can to keep it on track,” said Martina Bozadzhieva, head of research for Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Frontier Strategy Group.
Drilling is scheduled to start this June in the Chukchi, Laptev and Kara seas, an area thought to hold the equivalent of 9 billion barrels of oil -- about a third of Exxon’s total reserves. Though the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Rosneft’s CEO, the company itself remains un-sanctioned.
“That’s absolutely where the deals are made,” said Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institute, adding that more recent meetings have been especially important as oil companies from around the world try to tap into the Russian Arctic, thought to be the last frontier for massive oil reserves.
“It’s only the top guys that make the deals with Putin. I certainly don’t think you’ll be seeing any new deals,” Erbinger said. He predicts the attendees will focus on keeping current projects moving.
“These companies cannot stop-and-go every time there is a little bit of a crisis here or there,” said Fadel Gheit, managing director of oil and gas research and Oppenheimer & Co. Inc.
“The Arctic is the new frontier. They don’t want to miss out, they don’t want to come late,” said Gheit.
When Exxon announced earnings last week the company said it would continue work on the drilling project.
“Companies will decide for themselves what’s better for their business. Obviously they’ll listen to the advice of the White House, but they will make their own decision,” said Sergei Millian, president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce.
Though many fear that if sanctions increase Russia will simply kick the American companies out, it’s not quite that simple.
While global companies need Russia because of its massive levels of potential untapped reserves, Russia needs those companies in turn, because only they have the skills and resources to plumb resources buried deep in the ice.
“The Exxon partnership in the Arctic is really important to Russia because the production of the traditional oil fields is gradually declining, but the Russian oil companies don’t have the technology to open big new fields because they are typically in very difficult locations,” said Bozadzhieva.
“To maintain oil output, Russia needs these foreign partnerships that bring money and expertise to its own oil industry. The Rosneft-Exxon Mobil one is a classic example of that,” she said.