The news on the axis of oil -- Africa and South America: A key new travel route for oil executives is the south Atlantic shuttle between the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America. This is because, geologically speaking, they are "anologues" -- millions of years ago, the two continents were united, so that when oil is found on the coast of one, it can also be found on the coast of the other. Take this week for example. Houston-based EnerGulf Resources announced that it is drilling a supergiant 3.1 billion-barrel oilfield off the coast of Namibia, Bloomberg reports. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in northern Brazil, BP took a 40 percent stake in an offshore area held by Petrobras for an undisclosed sum of money; for BP, that is on top of a $3.2 billion investment in Brazil last year. On the South America side, this area is called the "equatorial margin," which includes northeastern Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname, write Bloomberg's Peter Millard and Rodrigo Orihuela. Companies working the equatorial margin have conviction that they can find oil straight across the sea in Africa as well. The Bloomberg writers quote Bob Fryklund of IHS CERA, a Massachusetts-based energy research firm: "It's one of the hottest trends in the business at the moment. People are marching up and down the coasts to figure out where those fan-shaped deposits are."
Yet the African continent can be perilous, as Chinese companies have discovered. South Sudan has expelled the head of the Chinese-Malaysian partnership conducting most of the country's oil production, reports the Associated Press. Liu Yingcai, chief of Petrodar (81 percent owned by the China National Petroleum Company and Malaysia's Petronas), was given 72 hours to leave after being accused of helping Sudan to steal South Sudan's oil. The alleged theft of more than 2 million of barrels underlies a ferocious row between the two neighbors. South Sudan asserts that Petrodar helped Sudan to build a dogleg pipeline that aided the alleged oil theft. It is the second recent drama involving the Chinese -- last month, 29 Chinese workers in South Sudan were abducted and held for 10 days by rebel forces. Yet, for the reasons stated above, the stakes are too high to leave. China relies on Africa as a whole for 24 percent of its oil imports, writes Reuters' David Stanway, and is not likely to pull back.
For Putin, the price of oil goes up: Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is waging a furious contest for a third term as president. His opponent? Enemies abroad (mainly Americans) who, he suggests, covet Russia's oil, corrupt its citizens into traitorous behavior, and all in all wish harm to the country. To buttress his fiery defense of Russia against a potential new invasion such as Napoleon's of 1812 (yes Putin really cited the French dictator), Putin is promising to dispense billions of dollars -- for higher pay for police and doctors, for cheaper health care, and for a stronger military. The spending, and the sharp-edged confidence behind Putin's politics, both flow from the spigot of Russia's prodigious oil exports, writes the Financial Times' Charles Clover. Many of the world's petro-rulers have become bolder with the rise of oil prices, and more profligate with the revenue given the challenges of the Arab Spring. In Putin's case, it is less than two weeks before a March 4 election that has ignited unprecedented criticism of his rule. That he has resorted to populist spending places enormous demands on Russia's oil income. The state budget already required an estimated $90-a-barrel oil to break even. Now the break-even price could be $120 a barrel, Clover writes. He quotes former deputy energy minister Vladimir Milov: "For Putin to have serious room for maneuver, he needs to have oil at $150 or $200 per barrel. What we have now is not enough." Finances are just one indication of a coming post-election Russian hangover. Putin's jingoism does not seem to be mere electoral politics -- with opponents now able to muster tens of thousands of supporters in the street, Putin will continue to need a bogeyman in order to rule effectively. Look for reset -- the thaw between the U.S. and Russia of the last three years -- to stay stubbornly on the back burner.
Go to the Jump for more of the Wrap.
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The shakeup over shale gas -- a newly available fuel that has overturned assumptions about energy, climate-change and geopolitics -- has now stretched across the Atlantic to England. A drilling company backed by John Browne, the former CEO of BP, says it has discovered the gas equivalent of up to 35 billion barrels of oil. In oil, a find of 1 billion barrels is regarded as a supergiant.
Until now, the United States has been the epicenter of the shale gas disruption. This gas is locked into barely porous shale rock a mile and more beneath the surface of the Earth. Over the last few years, drillers have extracted the gas using a method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- injecting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into the rock -- which has produced a bonanza of new supplies in the United States. Estimates are that it is sufficient to meet current U.S. consumption for a century.
Since gas emits just a third to a half the CO2 as coal, this gas glut -- to the degree it results in an accelerated shift away from coal-fired to gas-fired power plants -- could lower U.S. emissions of heat-trapping gases. As for geopolitics, the gas has already had the boomerang effect of casting doubt on Russia's economic and political leverage in Europe -- Russia supplies more than a quarter of Europe's gas, but the shale gas glut has challenged that market dominance.
All this impact has led to a search for shale gas elsewhere, especially in Europe and China.
Yet with the shale gas comes a backlash of local politics. In the U.S., drillers have been confronted with a furious protest movement of critics who say fracking contaminates drinking water supplies. In Europe, the protests have preceded any discoveries -- in the summer, for instance, France banned fracking.
Now, a U.K. company called Cuadrilla Resources says it has indications that a formation called the Bowland Shale is comparable in scale to the best U.S. finds, reports Guy Chazan at the Wall Street Journal. Cuadrilla's Dennis Carlton told Bloomberg's Ben Farey that the thickness of the gas-laden shale -- 3,000 feet in places -- is up to 10 times that of the ultra-rich Marcellus Shale that underlies New York and Pennsylvania. Cuadrilla's main investors include the hedge fund Riverstone Holdings, which is run by former BP CEO Browne.
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What do you do with an outlaw company? With Enron, the market acted, and destroyed it. Then Broadway put on a play (pictured above), and that didn't work out so well either. With Arthur Andersen, management surrendered after an indictment on criminal obstruction charges, and broke up the accounting firm pre-emptively. But what about BP -- six years of catastrophic accidents, 26 deaths, a case of market manipulation and now a fundamental contract violation make it a serial bad actor.
Does such recidivism signal essential untrustworthiness? And if so, is there anything to do if both the market and management fail to act and establish more responsible stewardship?
In the case of nations, this is an irreproachable question. In Egypt and Tunisia, long years of irresponsible leadership have led to ousters embraced by the West and much of the remainder of the world. In the case of Iraq, though controversial, the Bush Administration -- agitated over Saddam Hussain -- invaded. These are examples just of our current era, but the practice goes back to the beginning of the historical record. Read on to the jump.
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Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.