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World oil markets eye Yukos affair

Russia’s government has renewed its crackdown on Yukos oil by threatening to remove operating rights to key oilfields. By CNBC’s Rob Reynolds
/ Source: CNBC

The clash between the Kremlin and Russia’s largest oil company is once again coming to a head. Russia’s government has renewed its crackdown on Yukos oil by threatening to remove operating rights to key oilfields. The news has shocked already worried investors, sending Russia’s stock market lower.

In the latest twist in the battle between the Kremlin and the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russian authorities are threatening to strip Khodorkovsky’s oil company Yukos of critical licenses to develop new oilfields.

Crude oil prices jumped a dollar higher on world markets today. But energy analysts do not attribute that to the renewed pressure on Yukos.

Russian oil is a key part of future U.S. energy supplies. By 2010, its net exports are predicted to top 5.5 half million barrels per day.

“As Russia becomes a premier supplier to the U.S. market, and the more we increase production or encourage oil companies to increase production in Russia, that will give us obviously much more options,” said Fadel Gheit, senior energy analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. “So instead of leaning more on Saudi oil and Saudi supplies, we diversify away from that and to Russian supply.”

Those efforts to diversify away from Saudi oil took another step Tuesday after The World Bank’s private sector arm approved up to $310 million in loans for a major oil project that will carry Caspian Sea-drilled crude through three countries to foreign markets.

KGB circle?
Khodorkovsky’s arrest last month is widely believed to be orchestrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his circle of former KGB lieutenants, who saw Khodorkovsky as an ambitious political rival.

On Tuesday, the 40-year-old billionaire resigned as head of YUKOS, and he remains in jail. He was succeeded by a Russian-born American citizen, Simon Kukes, who emigrated to the United States in 1977, and has been in the oil business for 25 years. Kukes helped lead Britain’s BP into a joint venture with another Russia firm, TNK, earlier this year, the biggest foreign investment in Russian history.

Other Americans also took top positions in Yukos. The company hopes prosecutors won’t touch American citizens as they continue to squeeze YUKOS.

The Khodorkovsky scandal puts the Bush administration in a tight spot. It has championed more energy cooperation with Russia and sees its oil wealth as a counterweight to OPEC. But critics are calling for action to punish Putin for anti-democratic actions like curbing independent media and a perceived hostility to free-market capitalism.

Republican Senator John McCain says Russia should be dis-invited to the Group of Eight meeting next spring in Georgia, and says American companies should beware of doing business with Moscow due to the absence of the rule of law.

Russian stock prices — bloated this year by booming interest in the nation’s oil-driven economic recovery — took a fresh dive on Wednesday’s news, also rattled by debt rating agency Moody’s decision to cut its outlook stance on YUKOS and its merger partner Sibneft.

Oil rich
On a visit to Italy, Putin is scheduled to unveil a major new deal to supply Russian gas to Italy — just one of a wave of energy deals already sealed and in the pipeline.

Exxon Mobil, which along with its giant western peers in the oil industry is pouring billions of dollars into Russia, said on Wednesday it would not be put off its huge offshore Siberia project, Sakhalin, by the YUKOS affair.

“It’s a long-term proposition,” said Andrew Swiger, Production Director of ExxonMobil International at a conference in London. “When the political conditions and the economic conditions are there the industry is going to be there and ExxonMobil is going to be there.”

Reuters contributed to this story.