Could a New Cold War Freeze ExxonMobil out of Russia?

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Last week my Foolish colleague Aimee Duffy told you about "Russia's Iron Grip on Energy." In her typically well-crafted article, she noted the country's substantial reserves of fossil fuels and the western members of big oil that are headed to participate in exploration and production activities in the land of Vladimir Putin. Perhaps most interesting was her description of the Bazhenov oil shale, which may be 80 times the size of our own prolific Bakken formation in the Williston Basin.

An undesirable playmate
But then there's the Russia that has historically found it nearly impossible to "play nice" with others and clearly is at loggerheads with our own government over its role in the catastrophic goings-on in Syria. It's precisely that Russia that Winston Churchill famously defined as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

You likely know that such big, integrated companies as ExxonMobil (NYS: XOM) , Norway's Statoil (NYS: STO) , and Italy's Eni (NYS: E) have signed on to participate with Rosneft, Russia's giant state-owned oil company. Their employees will don untold layers of protective outerwear and have at it in the country's frigid Kara Sea, the Barents Sea, and other not-made-for-vacationing venues.


Let's hope that the Russia that has signed onto those agreements is more placid and dependable than the sharp-elbowed crew that jabbed Royal Dutch Shell (NYS: RDS.B) several years ago, forcing the company to relinquish its operating position on desolate Sakhalin Island. It was also close to that time that Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told his shareholders that the biggest member of big oil would avoid becoming involved in new projects in Russia until the probable treatment of foreign companies in the country became clearer.

Is Statoil coming or going?
And as you read this, Statoil may be being pushed out of Russia's giant Shtokman liquefied natural gas project in the Barents Sea. Heretofore, the Scandinavian company has been a partner with Rosneft, the massive Russian natural gas producer and distributor, and France's Total (NYS: TOT) . Somewhat amazingly, it appears possible that, despite its Sakhalin treatment, Shell would join the Shtokman project in Statoil's stead.

But it's outside events that are garnering all manner of attention for the country and its Putin-led government these days. You've obviously heard about the battles in Syria between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and an as-yet-nondescript group of rebels intent on his overthrow. The conflagration has been raging for months, has resulted in the deaths of untold thousands, and has no end in sight.

Indeed intensification of the battles was likely assured this week when, according to U.S. officials, Russia dispatched dozens of attack helicopters to Assad and his minions. And as if that weren't enough, it now appears that the Ruskies are sending a pair of attack warships to Syria as well.

Will the U.S. stay on the sidelines?
Thus far, the United States hasn't seen fit to intervene in the conflagration, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted days ago that the U.S. was "concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria." When questioned about the possibility of a U.S. blockage of the shipment, however, a Defense Department official observed that the administration has yet to declare an arms embargo on the country.

I'm convinced that there are a number of reasons why Russia is unlikely to turn tail and excuse itself from Syria's internal conflict, including the Middle Eastern country's hosting of Russia's only Mediterranean naval base at Tartus. Further, Russia under Putin has clearly established itself as a protector of Shiite regimes, including those in Iran and Syria. Assad actually represents a ruling group, the Alawites, a strain of Shia Islam in a country that is largely populated by Sunnis. Given that sectarian balance, Assad has also received more than a little aid from Tehran.

Conversely, the U.S. appears to have been aiding the insurgents, largely through Sunni Muslim proxies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. Indeed, it appears that the flow of ammunition to the rebels' Free Syrian Army has picked up through the northern border with Turkey of late. Perhaps because of its increased weaponry and other support, the Free Syrian Army has gained in its ability to stand its ground with Assad's forces.

The Foolish bottom line
Clearly the key question from the perspective of our nation in general, and the energy industry in particular, involves the direction being taken in the relationship between Russia and the U.S. It's tough to conclude that the rhetoric emanating from both countries doesn't signal a return to the Cold War, that frightening standoff that existed until the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.

This week President Putin and President Obama are facing one another at the G20 conference in Mexico. Don't expect a resolution to the burgeoning Syria conflict to result, however. Both are facing severe challenges at home, and so the status quo -- or even a further escalation of words -- is the likely outcome from the meeting.

As for the ExxonMobil deal with Rosneft, if the expanding Russia-U.S. chill in fact turns out to be a Cold War renewal, all bets may be off. In any event, Exxon has lots of positive programs occurring beyond its pact with Rosneft. On that basis alone, I urge Fools to monitor the big company, beginning by adding it to your version of My Watchlist.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorDavid Lee Smithdoesn't own shares in any of the companies named in this article.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Statoil A. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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