The head of French oil company Total is dead, and conspiracy theories and questions are swirling about the impact the future direction of the French energy giant will have on geopolitics and energy markets.
A decision to continue investing in the Russian energy sector could sink Total’s ship, while withdrawal of that investment could create a Yuan-sucking vacuum and deepen a burgeoning Russian-Chinese partnership.
As the investigation into the Oct. 20 plane crash that resulted in the death of CEO Cristophe de Margerie continues in Moscow, Total has begun to pick up the pieces. The company moved quickly to promote refining and chemicals head Patrick Pouyanné to chief executive and former chairman Thierry Desmarest will resume his role in the interim. Pouyanné will assume both duties at the end of next year.
The changeover comes at a difficult time as oil prices remain low and sanctions continue to affect Total’s considerable business in Russia. Pouyanné and Desmarest carry extensive experience, but their ability to separate business and politics, as well as navigate difficult financing problems, will have huge implications not only for the future of Total, but also their Western counterparts.
De Margerie and three crew members died when his private jet made contact with a snowplow during takeoff. The driver of the snowplow is being held for questioning and several airport officials have since resigned, but no formal charges have been leveled in what is being described by Russian officials as a case of negligence.
During his 40-year career at Total, de Margerie was known for his outspoken opinions and personal touch. As the head of Total’s Middle East division, de Margerie befriended the region’s wealthy and ushered the company away from Europe’s aging fields. More recently, he had engineered a push into Russia and partnered with Russia’s largest independent oil and gas producer, Novatek, in which Total now has an 18 percent stake. Last year, Russia production accounted for nine percent of Total’s annual output. By 2020, the company predicts Russia will be its most productive region, surpassing the Middle East.
The recent trouble in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions targeting Russia slowed Total’s plans. Even so, the late de Margerie remained a champion of Russian oil and gas, speaking out against the sanctions as a “dead-end.” Russian president Vladimir Putin was quick to affirm that he has lost a “true friend,” and Moscow expects Total’s work in Russia to continue as planned. How much of a friend Pouyanné can be is yet to be seen. Friendship notwithstanding, economic sanctions combined with sinking oil prices present daunting hurdles for Total moving forward in Russia.
Pouyanné brings to his new post a reputation as an adept manager with an eye for cutting costs. In September, Total announced plans to part with $10 billion in assets as well as trim its annual operating costs by $2 billion, essentially pulling the plug on their thus far unsuccessful “high-risk, high-reward” drilling strategy.
For Pouyanné, the sense of urgency is real as oil edges toward $80 a barrel; analysts at French bank Natixis report that each $1 shift in the price of crude has a $300 million impact on Total’s operating profit.
One of Pouyanné’s first tasks will be to reevaluate the company’s position in the post-Soviet space. Total holds a 20 percent stake in Novatek’s Yamal liquefied natural gas (LNG) project along with CNPC, China’s state-owned oil and gas conglomerate. The $27 billion project aims to supply Asian markets with up to 16.5 million tons of LNG annually, or approximately seven percent of global demand in 2012. As if the extreme Arctic environment did not provide enough challenges, sanctions have further complicated the matter.
In July, Washington imposed sanctions on Novatek and its founder Gennady Timchenko, causing a series of financing issues for the still ongoing Yamal project. In search of some quick cash, Novatek is looking to offload a block of shares to a non-dollar buyer. Thus far, Japan’s Mitsui and Mitsubishi, as well as India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp., have declined to participate. Total may be too invested in Novatek and Yamal to back out, but other projects across Eurasia may get the axe.
Total has largely ignored the shale gas revolution in the United States, but in May the company partnered with LUKoil to explore and develop Russia’s Bazhenov shale formation, one of the world’s largest. Sanctions have since halted the joint venture. With production yet to begin, Pouyanné may be more inclined to rein in the exploration costs instead of wait out the continuing crisis in Ukraine.
Another question mark for Total is their 16.8 percent share in Kazakhstan’s Kashagan field. Development costs of the megaproject have been estimated at $116 billion and harsh conditions and equipment failure have set back production significantly. Similarly cost-conscious ConocoPhillips sold their 8.4 percent share back to the Kazakh government in 2012. Total’s chief financial officer described the company’s latest effort there as a “last chance for us.”
Should Pouyanné and Total decide to end either of its Bazhenov or Kashagan wagers, the decision would be in line with falling demand globally and today’s economic climate prioritizing profit over growth. New exploration head Kevin McLachlan will likely return Total to more familiar locales in Africa and the Americas.
For its part, Russia appears to be simply trying to weather the storm. Its vast stores of untapped oil and gas ensure that suitors will keep coming, but the current political and economic conditions are anything but accommodating. In the absence of Western investment and technology, energy-thirsty China appears to be both ready and willing to take advantage of the opportunity to continue -- and expand -- its partnership with Russia.
By Colin Chilcoat of Oilprice.com
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