In July 2015, ExxonMobil had asked the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to make an exception to the Russia sanctions, which were imposed after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in early 2014. ExxonMobil had sought to do deepwater exploration drilling in the Russian area of the Black Sea before the end of the year to prevent a joint venture agreement with Rosneft from expiring. Rosneft, whose chief executive, Igor Sechin, is a close confidante of President Vladimir Putin, is a sanctioned company.
ExxonMobil also said that rival oil companies in Europe were planning to drill in Russia.
“We understand the statement today by Secretary Mnuchin in consultation with President Trump,” ExxonMobil said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Our 2015 application for a license under the provisions outlined in the U.S. sanctions was made to enable our company to meet its contractual obligations under a joint venture agreement in Russia, where competitor companies are authorized to undertake such work under European sanctions.”
The statement is a reference to ENI, the major Italian oil company that has a joint venture in an exploration block next to ExxonMobil’s in the Tuapsinskiy area of the Russian Black Sea. It is expected that ENI’s Maria 1 well will be drilled before the end of the year, according to a source familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak for his company.
On Thursday, ENI said it was not currently drilling in the Black Sea.
The Norwegian state oil company Statoil is drilling off the Far East coast of Russia. The project was permitted under European sanctions.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that ExxonMobil had sought a sanctions exception, though it was not clear when the permit application was made. On Friday, the company disclosed that the permission was sought long before the outcome of last year’s election or the choice of ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson to be Trump’s secretary of state. The paper said that the application was “revived” in March. The company said that was “untrue.”
The U.S. sanctions target Russian leaders close to Putin as well as major companies in the oil, gas and financial sectors to put a dent in the Russian economy. When the sanctions were imposed in 2014, ExxonMobil was in the middle of drilling an exploration well in the Kara Sea in Russia’s Arctic region. The Obama administration granted the company permission to finish the well and withdraw the equipment.
ExxonMobil had also been in the midst of negotiations with Ukraine over drilling offshore in the Skifska block, but that area lies off Crimea’s coast, and talks broke off after the Russian annexation.
“Exxon’s request for a waiver for oil exploration in Russia was inconsistent with the original intent of the sanctions put in place by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Treasury’s rejection of the request reflects that,” said Jason Bordoff, the director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
Any exception to Russia sanctions for ExxonMobil would be a sensitive issue in light of allegations about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and since Tillerson was chief executive of the oil giant for a decade. Tillerson has said that he would recuse himself from such decisions.
Several members of Congress had urged the Trump administration to reject any waiver requested by ExxonMobil.
But the White House and ExxonMobil have, more broadly, often been closely aligned — even releasing news releases containing nearly an entire paragraph in common in March to tout the company’s planned investments in the Gulf Coast region.
—Chris Mooney contributed to this report.