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BP (BP-N), recovering from its Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, said on Friday it will swap 5 percent of its shares, valued at $7.8 billion US, for 9.5 percent of Rosneft. BP said it will issue new shares to Rosneft.
The deal covers areas in the South Kara Sea in the Arctic that BP said could contain billions of barrels of oil and gas. It also provides the British oil company with access to huge tracts of the Arctic that had previously been reserved for Russian companies.
The pact, which is expected to be completed in a few weeks, highlights a sharp turnaround in relations with Moscow both for BP and its Chief Executive Bob Dudley, who was forced to flee Russia in 2008 after heading BP's Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, which is half-owned by BP.
Dudley said the deal was the first significant cross-shareholding between a nationally owned oil company and an international oil company and called it "a new template for how business can be done in our industry ..."
Dudley had been the boss for TNK-BP's formation in 2003 and was forced to leave due to what he described as a campaign of harassment by BP-TNK's billionaire oligarch co-owners.
The issue has since been resolved and Dudley returned to Moscow for the first time this summer, following his appointment as CEO of BP, to be warmly welcomed by officials.
Tony Hayward, Dudley's predecessor who was vilified for his handling of BP's massive Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010, holds a seat on TNK-BP's board of directors.
"They've chosen to get into that part of the world to expand reserves and for future growth in production," Michael Cuggino, CEO of Pacific Heights Asset Management and a BP shareholder, said.
"So I don't know if this is something new, or just a recommitment to that strategy. The problem is they had a difficult time a few years ago," he said.
Russia is a key part of BP's global operation, providing the company with a quarter of its reserves before the U.S. oil spill, so it is vital for Dudley to establish a good working relationship with the world's largest oil exporting nation.
Congressman Edward Markey, who is the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, immediately called for a review of the deal by U.S. regulators.
The U.S. Treasury said it is forbidden by law to comment on investigations, planned or under way, by its Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
Environmental group Greenpeace, noting the fragility of the Arctic, also lashed out.
"Now BP has bought its way into the Arctic by the back door. It seems the company learned nothing last year in the Gulf of Mexico," Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace said in a statement.
BP has a market capitalization of $150 billion U.S. dollars, while Rosneft is valued at about $83 billion.
The venture underscores Europe's dependence on Russia for a rising share of its energy needs -- particularly for clean-burning natural gas. Russia holds one-fifth of the world's reserves of natural gas.
Chris Huhne, British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, welcomed the "groundbreaking" deal and called it "good news for Europe, for the UK's energy security and worldwide."
BP's deal with Rosneft gives BP access to highly sought after reserves of oil and natural gas in Russia's remote Arctic region.
Russia, the world's top oil producer with output of more than 10 million barrels of oil per day (bpd), estimates that its Arctic zone holds about 51 billion tonnes of oil, or enough to fully meet global oil demand for more than four years.
"Rosneft is well aware that its ability to do deepwater Arctic work alone is very limited," Cliff Kupchan, Director of the Eurasia Group in Washington, said. "They have been looking for ways to bring in companies with the technology and especially management skills needed to pull off deepwater Arctic work."
Russia wants to encourage oil exploration and production in its icy Arctic waters, but in the wake of BP's Gulf spill, Russian officials and experts warn that a similar accident in the Arctic could turn out far worse.
The BP-Rosneft discussions "are ones that have happened over a number of months and are not in reaction to anything in the United States," Dudley told a London new conference. "This is part of BP's strategic direction of access to large hydrocarbon basins and we have had a strong relationship with Rosneft for a long time."
Russia has increasingly been looking to raise its influence on the global financial stage, with major companies -- including state-controlled ones -- seeking foreign acquisitions.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government has also pledged to ease investors' access into Russia as it looks to foreigners to play a key role in helping to modernize the economy -- including through taking part in a big privatization drive starting this year.
Britain's new coalition government has attempted to improve relations with Moscow -- tense since the murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 -- although tensions resurfaced last month with the expulsion of a Russian diplomat from London.