U.S. energy companies shrug off Myanmar concerns

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. energy companies are shrugging off pressure to end operations in Myanmar that critics contend help prop up the military junta and its hold over the country.

Those companies, Chevron Corp, Schlumberger Ltd, Baker Hughes Inc and BJ Services Co, all play a role in the Asian nation’s growing position as a key energy supplier to the region.

Chevron took over a 28 percent stake in Myanmar’s Yadana and Sein gas fields when it purchased Unocal. Yadana is operated by French oil company Total SA, which has said its departure could put the field in the hands of a less responsible company.

Washington banned new investments in Myanmar by U.S. companies in 1997 and barred imports. More recently, it has sought to target the investments and movements of the junta’s highest ranking members, but experts say the United States has little impact over events there.

Chevron would not comment about its work in Myanmar, also known as Burma, but Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company, defended its presence.

“Schlumberger is very concerned about the developments in Burma, but views its presence as positive -- particularly for the Burmese people that it employs. Wherever it operates, the company follows business practices that conform to internationally accepted standards of behavior,” Schlumberger spokesman Stephen Harris said in an e-mailed statement.

Baker Hughes said it supplied products to customers in Myanmar, although it did not have an office or operations there and it was constantly reviewing its presence in nations around the globe.

Protests led by Myanmar’s Buddhist monks brought crowds of up to 100,000 to its largest city, Yangon, but were halted as security forces raided monasteries and imposed curfews. Government officials said 10 people were killed in the crackdown, although human rights groups say the figure was far higher.

In 1988, an estimated 3,000 people were killed over several months when the army stamped out a nationwide uprising.

Those brutal actions have prompted a worldwide outcry to cut off the Myanmar regime in a bid to starve it of cash.

“We would like to see Chevron out of Burma, but the main point there is stopping the flow of money to the regime,” said Jeremy Woodrum, U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group.

But even as nations line up to condemn the latest violence, few expect Myanmar’s closest economic partners -- Thailand, India and China -- to risk their access to the nation’s energy resources.

Those nations are relying on natural, gas and perhaps untapped oil wealth, to keep their economic growth on track.

“In the case of the Indians and the Chinese, who are the biggest players, they are at this point not particularly bothered by the situation that exists,” Fred von der Mehden, an expert on Myanmar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Energy market watchers said U.S. companies run a risk by doing business in Myanmar, although the industry has long ventured into such places, including Schlumberger’s operations in Iran and Libya.

“But one of the reasons you might want to keep a toehold in there is that it’s a country with rich natural resources. If the junta was overthrown, there is some advantage to being there already,” said Roger Read, an analyst with Natixis Bleichroeder.

Additional reporting by Anna Driver in Houston and Paul Eckert in Washington