(OilPrice.com, Viktor Katona, 6.Aug.2018) – Rosneft has been rocking the Russian oil sector for quite some time already – first it acquired several domestic assets, in some cases bordering on hostile takeover, then it took on a couple of international commitments in Iraqi Kurdistan and Venezuela and secured hefty tax concessions. This has led to a sense of satiation, fortified by CEO Igor Sechin opining recently that the oil giant will focus on organic growth from now on. In a somewhat dubious manifestation of Rosneft’s new policy, it is now suing its partners in the Sakhalin-I project for an unprecedented 89 billion roubles ($1.4 billion). The reason, coded with great deliberation in legal gobbledygook, seems remarkably humdrum at first sight, yet there is more to it.
Rosneft claims that the Sakhalin-I shareholders have gained 81.7 billion roubles by means of unjust enrichment, whilst another 7.3 billion roubles are to be paid back as interest gained having used third party funds between 2015 and 2018. The basis of the unjust enrichment claim is Rosneft’s allegation that the exploitation of Sakhalin-I has led to oil crossing over from its Northern Chayvo field to the consortium’s Chayvo deposits. Oil migration is a regular feature of any upstream specialist’s life and so far there were only few examples of taking similar issues to court, especially to such a noteworthy sum required. Further complicating matters, two Rosneft subsidiaries, Rosneft-Astra and Sakhalinmorneftegaz-Shelf, are also present in the Sakhalin-I shareholder structure (20 percent) and Rosneft is claiming money from them, too (17.5 billion roubles in total).
Before we start looking at the political underpinning of Rosneft’s claim, it would be expedient to compare the two projects as they are incomparable in size, importance and scale. Sakhalin-I consists of three oil fields that were deemed commercially attractive in 2000 – Chayvo, Odoptu and Arkutun-Dagi – production at which has started in 2005. The three field’s reserves boast an aggregate of 310 million tons of oil and 485 BCm of natural gas (17 TCf), making it Russia’s biggest project in the Pacific Ocean. By comparison, the Northern Tip of the Chayvo field (also called Chayvo North Dome) contains a “mere” 15 million tons of oil and 13 BCm of gas. It also started production significantly later than Sakhalin-I, with the first producing well of the presumed five having been drilled in September 2014.
What the two projects do have in common, however, is their relatively swift peaking out – Sakhalin-I peaked in 2007, roughly one and a half year after production started (11.2 mtpa or 225 kbpd) and has failed to regain that level ever since, even though two additional fields were brought online in 2010 and 2015 – Odoptu and Arkutun-Dagi, respectively. Currently the Sakhalin-I oil output stands at So did the Northern Tip of the Chayvo field – having reached a 50 kbpd peak in 2016, it fell by some 60 percent in the past two years since. From Rosneft’s standpoint, this is mostly due to oil migrating from the northern dome to the southern and central parts of the field.
With the abovementioned facts in mind, one gets a clear picture of why Sakhalin-I is more important from a federal point of view – moreover, interestingly enough, it is the last project on Russian soil to be operated by a foreign company (ExxonMobil, holding the largest stake of 30 percent). Rosneft is demanding payment of 26.7 billion roubles from both ExxonMobil and the Japanese consortium SODECO (consisting of Marubeni, Japan Petroleum Exploration, ITOCHU, INPEX and JOGMEC), whilst the Indian ONGC Videsh should pay 17.8 billion roubles and its subsidiaries 17.5 billion roubles. The amounts in question are indubitably far-fetched – even though oil migration has been an issue for Rosneft for several years already, the required sum is equivalent to 18-19 million barrels of oil under current circumstances, almost a quarter of Sakhalin-I’s total annual production and 17-18 percent of Northern Chayvo’s reserves.
Herein lies the main tenet of the claim – it is less to establish truth and compensate for real losses, rather to exert pressure on shareholders. Rosneft’s ultimate goal is unclear as the Russian state has so far refrained from any sanctions against oil majors operating in the country, be it in an operator or non-operator status, and any deterioration would be deemed inopportune now that the post-World Cup period has brought in a semblance of a thaw. It is clear, however, that the once very powerful Rosneft-Exxon Mobil link is getting weaker following the departure of Rex Tillerson (whose good personal relationship with Igor Sechin helped to forge effective deals) – even though Exxon’s recent abandonment of upstream ventures with Rosneft did not allegedly close the door for any future cooperation, the contours of anything similar happening in the future are increasingly dim.
More than ten years ago, Gazprom has managed to push out then-operator Shell out of the Sakhalin-II venture, using environmental violations as a pretext. Although environmental breaches have been brought up once again this month – a significant herring die off off the Sakhalin coast aroused suspicion that it might have been caused by oil production – it is highly unlikely that Rosneft would follow the same path. Rumours are circulating that the state-owned oil giant is seeking an out-of-court settlement and does not want to take the issue all the way through the Paris arbitration, from the point of view of placating fears about another takeover it would be politic to state that Rosneft does not intend to reshuffle the ownership structure. Yet so far, Rosneft has been highly reluctant to show its cards.