Europe’s biggest oil groups are extending business deals with their Russian energy partners despite this month’s EU vote to continue imposing sanctions, highlighting how western companies are learning to live with the restrictions placed on Moscow.

BP is close to agreeing a deal to acquire a 20 per cent stake in a Siberian oilfield from state-owned Rosneft that could be worth $700m, people familiar with the matter told the Financial Times, while Eni and Statoil have received approval from European capitals to continue work on their joint ventures with Rosneft. Shell is also still working on its Salym joint venture with Gazprom Neft, the oil arm of the Russian gas giant, and has applied for approval from the Dutch government for other projects.

The moves come as the St Petersburg international economic forum, Russia’s answer to Davos, takes place this week under a rather different mood from last year when sanctions were first imposed. This year there is a more positive atmosphere as international companies try to work around the sanctions with their Russian partners.

The extending co-operation between Europe’s oil majors and the Russians demonstrates a growing divide between Europe and the US. Washington has blocked all co-operation in Arctic, deepwater and shale oil with Russia, meaning thatExxonMobil’s 10 joint ventures with Rosneft remain frozen. But the EU sanctions, which allow companies with pre-existing contracts to continue, enable the European groups to even expand their activities in Russia.

“European companies are finding ways and are certainly freer to do business than their US counterparts,” said James Henderson, senior fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. “US companies are going to be hugely disadvantaged as we go forward because EU sanctions are not retroactive and US ones are.”

One western energy official in Moscow said European companies “live in hope”, characterising the moves as “keeping the plate warm” for when sanctions are eventually lifted. Bob Dudley, BP’s chief executive, told CNBC this month that the British company would “be exploring other additional investment opportunities” in Russia.

BP is set to sign a deal to take a 20 per cent stake in the Taas-Yuriakh oilfield as soon as this week, which could be unveiled in St Petersburg, according to people familiar with the matter.

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Oil majors have trod cautiously, applying for interpretations of sanctions law to national EU capitals. Eni and Statoil, whose various joint ventures with Rosneft are registered in Luxembourg, have received approval from the government there to transfer technology and services to their Russian joint ventures, a person familiar with the matter said. However, financing, which is covered by a separate section of sanctions, may be approved only on a case-by-case basis.

Statoil is planning to drill two wells with Rosneft at a Siberian onshore field, North Komsomolskoye, this summer, and two further wells in the Okhotsk Sea next summer. Eni has not announced any plans, but one person with knowledge of the company’s thinking said that it may look to continue work on a Black Sea licence with Rosneft.

The European oil majors said they were complying with sanctions while Rosneft said western oil groups were “extremely interested” in extending their partnerships with Rosneft.

Source: Financial Times