ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - The leaders of the global oil industry gathered as usual at Russia’s top annual business forum this week but there was one ghost at the party.
BP (BP.L) chief executive Tony Hayward, normally a regular, was conspicuous by his absence this year and his company’s woes were a constant topic of discussion among those who did come.
Leaving the forum on Friday evening, one BP-connected oil industry executive looked at his watch ruefully. “Hayward is due to testify in 45 minutes,” he said, his mind clearly elsewhere.
In Washington, Hayward faced the wrath of U.S. lawmakers over BP’s failure to stop oil spewing out of a Gulf of Mexico well but the repercussions could be felt in St Petersburg.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speculated about BP on the eve of the forum, telling the Wall Street Journal that the Kremlin was “not indifferent to their future” and adding: “Hopefully, they can absorb the losses.”
Oil executives echoed his sentiments.
“I think we are all at stake and I do wish BP will survive,” Total CEO Christophe de Margerie, told Reuters on the sidelines.
“I think we have to do our best in the industry to make sure this will never happen again.”
In Moscow, it briefly appeared as if the unwinding of BP’s empire had begun as a $500 million stake in Rosneft (ROSN.MM) changed hands on the local stock exchange, triggering speculation that the British major was disposing of its 1.2 percent stake in Russia’s top producer.
BP’s most senior official at the forum, Russia manager David Peattie, denied the major had begun a fire sale of assets to pay for a $20 billion damage fund ordered by U.S. authorities.
“We believe that a powerful company like BP can easily form the fund and asset sales will be minimal, if any,” Rosneft CEO Sergei Bogdanchikov told reporters.
“Big losses, but it will survive. In theory, a friendly takeover is possible,” Russian oil company Gazprom Neft’s CEO Alexander Dyukov told Reuters when asked about BP’s likely fate.
The prospect of a bonanza for BP’s rivals held no appeal.
“We are not wolves,” LUKOIL President Vagit Alekperov said. “We don’t eat the weak.”
The accident is particularly poignant for Russia, the world’s largest oil exporter, which earns 60 percent of its tax revenues from hydrocarbons and must find safe ways to develop complex, expensive offshore projects to maintain supply.
Russia’s top oil official, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, noted in remarks to a forum audience including the chief executives of ConocoPhillips (COP.N), Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) and ENI (ENI.MI), that the spill could affect key projects such as the giant Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea.
“Every time I think of the accident I break out in a cold sweat,” Sechin, a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, told Reuters later in an interview.
“The consequences are so grave and I understand the actions of the U.S. administration, which is focusing its attention on cleanup, but I also sympathize with BP.”
Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova, Polina Devitt, Dmitry Sergeyev and Melissa Akin; writing by Michael Stott and Melissa Akin; editing by Patrick Graham