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Kremlin Counting on a Gusher

GLOBAL CAPITAL

With the planned sale of stock in oil firm Rosneft, Russia hopes to gain foreign-policy leverage.

June 24, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

"Rosneft over the last two years, even without Yuganskneftegaz, has been growing faster than any of our Russian peers," O'Brien said in an interview. "You combine growth, the asset base, Bogdanchikov's vision, and most important for me, he wants to take the company public; he wants to be a global competitor. He understands what that means in terms of transparency, in communicating with investors."

In a triumphant meeting with potential investors at the glitzy, limousine-and-champagne-powered Russian Economic Forum in London in April, Bogdanchikov declared that Rosneft intended to surpass every other publicly traded oil company in production by 2015.

"Last year, Rosneft extracted 1.5 million barrels of oil a day. At present, this figure is already higher. We plan to approach 2 million barrels by 2010 and 3 million by 2015," he said.

With facilities like the floating Belokamenka oil terminal near Murmansk, Rosneft is also proving adept at getting around the pipeline bottleneck that has slowed the expansion of Russian oil exports in recent years.

Former Yukos Chief Executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now in prison, had championed a northern pipeline to run near here, but the Russian state pipeline monopoly, Transneft, has focused most of its energies on building a pipeline on the other end of the country to supply markets in Asia.

Undaunted, Rosneft set up a complicated but workable export mechanism, which will allow it to reliably export expanded production year-round from its oil fields in Usinsk, and also from the Vankor oil field in eastern Siberia.

This year, Rosneft expects to ship 3.17 million tons of its own oil through the big stationary tanker, whose offshore location in warm jet-stream waters gives it, unlike at other Russian ports, ice-free export capability throughout the year. Exports are expected to grow to 19 million tons a year by 2015.

About 20% of the oil shipped out of Belokamenka is delivered to the U.S.

"It's a unique export complex, completely controlled by Rosneft, and providing new export directions for the export of Russian oil," said Bogdanov, the export vice president.

A big uncertainty with the IPO remains its timing. Although the company has been tracking a timetable leading to a possible mid-July sales debut for months, the volatility in emerging markets over the last few weeks has hit Russia particularly hard -- the Russian Trading System index fell 9.4% on June 13, raising questions about whether now is the time to try to raise $8 billion or more.

Another question is whether big state-owned energy companies from China or India will be among the first big bidders at the table. Bogdanchikov, in an interview last week with the Russian business daily Vedmosti, denied that they would be offered a preferential strategic stake.

"Our position is the following: to give no more than 1.5% to 2% into one set of hands," Bogdanchikov said. "If one of the majors or the large companies of Southeast Asia wants to buy, they can buy during the IPO. They can buy shares, but on the same terms as everyone else."

The biggest doubts by far are the frequent reminders that the upcoming IPO is, in no small part, the repackaging of a questionably acquired Yukos asset (minus 83% of its tax liability after the courts axed $3.9 billion from the bill that broke up Yukos) -- and one that many minority stockholders lost their shirts on as a result of the government takeover.

With shareholder lawsuits pending, London-based F&C Asset Management in April warned investors against the IPO. "Unless Rosneft can provide us with credible assurances that it has identified, and made adequate provisions for, any liabilities stemming from the acquisition of its Yuganskneftegaz assets, we won't be interested," Karina Litvack, head of corporate governance and socially responsible investment at F&C, said in a statement.

Financier and philanthropist George Soros, whose foundation is working throughout the republics of the former Soviet Union to promote democracy and transparent market principles, questioned in a letter to the Financial Times whether the IPO should be allowed to proceed at all.

"To argue that it will improve transparency ignores the fact that Rosneft is an instrument of state that will always serve the political objectives of Russia in preference to the interests of the shareholders. Is Rosneft willing to put this in the prospectus?" he wrote.

Bogdanchikov has downplayed investment risks as a result of outstanding Yukos shareholder suits, pointing in an interview last week with the Russian business newspaper Kommersant to several cases that had been decided against such claims. "The question arises of what claims can be made against us," he said. "We say that the Yuganskneftegaz case is closed."

Of course, there's another way of looking at it, many analysts say. With the Kremlin sitting at the head of the boardroom table, whatever happens to the rest of business as it navigates its way through the iceberg-strewn waters of Russia, Rosneft's path looks like clear sailing.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Rosneft Oil

Founded: 1993

Headquarters: Moscow

Major businesses and assets: 10 oil- and gas-producing enterprises across Russia. Owns two refineries, four main oil export terminals and 600 service stations nationwide.

2005 oil production: 74.56 million tons

Proven oil reserves as of Dec. 31, 2005: 14.88 billion barrels

2005 revenue: $23.95 billion

2005 net income: $4.16 billion

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Source: Company reports

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