BP has stepped into a new row over oil spills – this time in Russia – less than 24 hours after announcing it was going to pay out $8bn in America for polluting beaches with the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
Shares in TNK-BP, the Russian joint venture, slumped 5% after a meeting chaired by Vladimir Putin heard how legal action seeking damages was being prepared over leaks from pipelines into the Ob and Yenisei rivers. Natural resources and ecology minister Yuri Trutnev, whose ministry has a track record of successfully stripping companies such as Shell of their assets over ecological misdeeds, told Putin he was planning to go to court.
“I ordered Rosprirodnadzor [the environmental regulator] to prepare a lawsuit to seek damages and offered the company to lay out a plan on overhauling their pipeline system,” he said, according to the meeting transcripts published on the government website on Thursday. “Please, act in line with the law,” Putin was reported to have said in response.
TNK-BP denied it was suffering any self-inflicted environmental problems and said it had long been implementing a comprehensive programme for improving and modernising its pipeline infrastructure.
“The company has also undertaken a programme for remediation of legacy lands contaminated in the Soviet period when hydrocarbons were produced without due regard to environmental protection,” it said in a statement.
But while some industry watchers said BP could be caught up in political manoeuvring in the Kremlin, the company will be aware of the problems that hit Shell in 2006. The Anglo-Dutch oil group was accused of breaking various environmental laws at the Sakhalin-2 gas project and was then forced to sell down its 55% stake to state-owned Gazprom in what was seen as a display of resource nationalism.
BP has in the past tangled with Rosprirodnadzor and at one stage two years ago faced having its operating licence revoked on the Kovykta field in Eastern Siberia.
But BP has more recently has been fighting its own Russian partners inside TNK after they objected to the British company trying to tie up an independent share swap and Arctic exploration deal with a second Russian company, Rosneft. The deal fell through and BP has had its place taken by ExxonMobil, but the TNK shareholders are variously trying to take legal action against BP for alleged breach of the shareholder agreement and other issues.
The wider climate surrounding international oil companies has got worse as a result of increased resource nationalism and tougher action triggered by the Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
Argentina has become the latest country to try to seize assets. Earlier this week the government in Buenos Aires announced plans to renationalise the YPF company controlled by Repsol of Spain.
At the same time Chevron of the US and its rig owner Transocean have been charged with environmental crimes related to a November oil spill at the Frade field off Brazil.
A drilling accident caused an estimated 2,400 to 3,000 barrels of oil to seep from cracks in the seabed but a prosecutor has already confiscated the passports of 17 staff and threatened fines totalling $11bn.