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Shanghai Daily: Government squeeze on oil giants

Tuesday 29 January 2008: Created: 2008-1-29 0:10:49
Author:Fred Pals

STATE-CONTROLLED energy companies OAO Gazprom and Petroleo Brasileiro SA are winning the battle for investors as their governments squeeze Exxon Mobil Corp, BP Plc, and Royal Dutch Shell Plc for access to oil and gas.

Russia’s Gazprom forced BP and Shell last year to cede control of gas deposits that can supply Asia for more than five years, while Brazil pulled 41 exploration licenses from an auction after Petrobras found an eight-billion barrel oil field in November.

Governments are demanding more of the industry’s record revenue because crude prices have tripled since 2002, and drilling contracts give host nations a bigger share of output when commodity prices rise.

The loss of oil in Russia, Kazakhstan and Venezuela is felt more keenly because production from older fields in the North Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Alaska is declining as easy-to-tap reserves age.

“You’re starting to get a cap on just what these guys can earn,” said James Halloran, who helps manage US$35 billion at National City Private Client Group in Cleveland. “Production is starting to peak. I’m concerned about what these guys are going to have in terms of reserves going forward.”

Petrobras shares gained 46 percent in the past six months, while Gazprom, the world’s largest gas producer, advanced 12 percent. Exxon Mobil lost 4.9 percent, and Shell dropped 8.6 percent. London-based BP fell 6.5 percent.

Twelve of 13 Wall Street analysts tracked by Bloomberg News tell investors to buy Gazprom and 15 of 15 recommend Petrobras, the biggest oil company in Brazil. For Exxon Mobil, 10 of 21 endorse the stock, while for Chevron Corp, the second-largest US oil producer after Exxon, it’s eight of 21. Shell’s A shares in London have a “buy” rating from 20 of 37 analysts.

Lord Abbett & Co, Hermes Investment Management and Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec each dumped at least two million shares of Exxon in the latter half of last year as crude prices rose toward US$100 a barrel, data compiled by Bloomberg shows.

Exxon and Chevron may record the smallest annual per share net income growth since 2002 when they report results this week, according to the average estimate of analysts compiled by Bloomberg. Irving, Texas-based Exxon will probably post a 4.4-percent increase in quarterly profit to US$10.7 billion, while California-based Chevron may report a 24-percent gain to US$4.66 billion.

“We’re making a shift away from the vertically integrated companies,” said Daniel Genter, who helps manage US$2.8 billion at RNC Genter Capital Management, a Los Angeles firm that sold more than 60,000 Chevron shares last year. “As we go forward, the benefits of higher oil prices will go more toward the national oil companies and away from the major oil companies.”

OPEC, along with Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Brazil, sit on 1.06 trillion barrels of oil, or 88 percent of global reserves, estimates from London-based BP show.

In many contracts with host nations, the price of crude determines how much output foreign oil companies are allowed. BP’s production from Azerbaijan, for example, was lower when oil was US$60 a barrel than when it was US$40, the company said in 2006.

Such agreements are encouraging the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to bolster prices by lowering output. Last week ministers from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq said the group didn’t need to raise production at their February 1 meeting in Vienna.

Crude ended last week at US$90.71 a barrel after reaching a record US$100.09 in New York trading on January 3.

Kazakhstan this month scrapped parts of a 10-year-old agreement over the Kashagan discovery because foreign companies are behind schedule and over budget on developing it. The country gave its national oil company a larger stake in the 13 billion-barrel project instead. The new deal may cost Exxon Mobil, Shell, Total SA of France and Italy’s Eni SpA, the venture’s biggest shareholders, 9.5 million barrels a year each in lost production after 2020, said Colin Smith, an analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort in London.

In Brazil, the government’s approach changed after the Tupi oil discovery, one of the largest of the past two decades. Officials who pulled the licenses from planned auctions said they needed to “rethink” how the blocks were sold.

“The indications point to big volumes,” Petrobras Chief Executive Officer Jose Sergio Gabrielli said on January 23 in a Bloomberg Television interview from Davos, Switzerland. “We have a very large, new exploratory frontier in the coast of Brazil.”

To get Shell to sell Gazprom a majority stake in the US$22 billion Sakhalin-2 venture last year, Russia threatened to block the project because of environmental concerns. Gazprom, based in Moscow, is also taking control of BP’s Kovykta Siberian gas deposit after the government threatened to revoke the contract for failing to meet the schedule.

“We’re going to find that most oil companies produce a little bit less each year,” said Charlie Maxwell, senior energy analyst at Weeden & Co in Connecticut on January 23.

In the first nine months of 2007, production at Exxon and Chevron declined by about two percent from a year earlier, while output at Shell, based in The Hague, fell four percent.

Most state-run producers had increases during the period, with Russia’s OAO Rosneft reporting a 29-percent gain.

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