Russia’s recognition of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine could threaten important investments of Western oil giants and further drive up global energy prices in the next few weeks.
Since the closing days of the Cold War, Russia’s energy-based economy has become entwined with Europe’s. Several European energy companies such as Shell, TotalEnergies, and BP have significant Russian operations and investments. Though expansion of those holdings was largely halted after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, they remain important profit centers and could now be at risk.
Seeking to isolate President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, President Biden and the European Union imposed new sanctions on the Russian government and the country’s political and business elite on Tuesday. These sanctions do not directly affect the energy industry. That’s why oil and gas prices settled only modestly higher on Tuesday afternoon in New York.
Analysts warn that the energy industry could still be affected if the crisis drags on, especially if Mr. Putin decides to send troops to Ukraine or to seize control of Kyiv. This aggressive action would most likely prompt Mr. Biden and other Western leaders into escalating their response.
European leaders have already taken aim at Russian energy exports. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced Tuesday that Germany would stop certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipe, which is supposed deliver Russian gas. Because the pipeline is still in operation, this decision will not have any immediate impact on European energy supplies. But Russian gas shipments through Ukraine could be halted, especially if Mr. Putin’s troops push farther into Ukraine or if he cuts off gas to Europe in retaliation for Western sanctions.
Russia supplies one in ten barrels of oil worldwide. After Western officials reported that Russian troops had entered eastern Ukrainian territories held by separatists in the early hours of Tuesday, oil prices quickly shot up to near $100 a barrel before stabilizing.
Experts in energy say that oil prices could rise by as much as $20 per barrel if Putin wants to occupy more of Ukraine. A similar outcome could also create major problems for Western oil firms that do business with Russia.
“In that environment, the legal and reputational risk faced by Western energy companies operating in Russia will rise sharply,” said Robert McNally, who was an energy adviser to President George W. Bush and is now president of the Rapidan Energy Group, a consulting firm. “For oil markets, this means slower supply growth and even tighter global balances and higher prices in the coming years.”
TotalEnergies, which is based near Paris, owns nearly 20 percent of Novatek, Russia’s largest liquefied natural gas company, and Shell has a strategic alliance with Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas monopoly.
BP is the largest Western oil company involved in Russia. It owns almost 20 percent of Rosneft. This state-controlled energy company is managed by Igor Sechin. Sechin is widely considered a Putin ally and adviser. BP’s chief executive, Bernard Looney, and its former chief executive Bob Dudley sit on Rosneft’s board with Mr. Sechin and Alexander Novak, Russia’s deputy prime minister.
Rosneft has a secondary listing at the London Stock Exchange and contributed $2.4 billion in profits to BP and $600 million in dividends in 2021. About a third of BP’s oil production, or 1.1 million barrels a day, came from Russia last year.
BP executives have shown calm so far. “We have been there over 30 years and our job is to focus on our business, and that is what we are doing,” Mr. Looney said in a recent conference call with analysts. “If something comes down the road, then obviously we will deal with it as it comes.”
Increasing oil and gas prices have led to record profits for many oil companies. European companies are using some of their profits for investments in wind, sun, hydrogen, and other forms cleaner energy. However, the current crisis could prove to be a significant distraction.
Russia has been a difficult place to do business, especially with Mr. Putin’s reaffirmation of state control over energy, which squeezes private investors.
Gazprom was given control of the Sakhalin Island liquefied natural-gas project in eastern Russia in 2006 after Shell was forced to surrender control. Shell still holds a small share of the facility, but it seems to want to keep the…