As western governments impose sanctions on Russia, international majors with interests in the country have stayed out of the fray, saying it’s business as usual. France’s Total, for one, was not going to let the Ukraine crisis halt plans to finalize a deal with Russian Lukoil this week that paves the way for exploration of tight oil reserves in western Siberia.

Total has entered a joint venture with Lukoil to explore the tight oil potential of the Bazhenov formation in western Siberia, the French company said on Friday. Lukoil will have a controlling 51 per cent interest of the project, with Total holding the remaining 49 per cent. After conducting seismic surveys this year, the partners expect to begin drilling in 2015.

“Total’s entry into the Bazhenov…reinforces our position in non-conventional hydrocarbons where the group has developed significant experience with its numerous projects,” Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of Total, said in a statement.

“Our international expertise leveraged with Lukoil’s experience in the region provides a balanced partnership and an excellent basis from which to appraise the huge potential of this west Siberian play,” he added.

Stretching over a vast area from Omsk near Russia’s border with Kazakhstan to the Arctic Kara Sea, the Bazhenov formation lies 2km below the ground and is the source rock for conventional oil fields in Siberia that have been the mainstay of Russia’s oil industry for more than forty years.

Geologists estimate the Bazhenov could hold as much as 100bn barrels of recoverable oil, five times as much as North Dakota’s Bakken shale that has driven the renaissance of America’s oil industry.

Russian oil companies are pinning their hopes on the Bazhenov to compensate for a decline in production at conventional Siberian oil fields. But they need help from their western counterparts to figure out how to tease tight oil out of the ground.

Rosneft has formed a partnership with ExxonMobil to explore the Bazhenov, while Gazprom Neft is working in the area with Shell.

Lukoil has been without an international partner in the Russian upstream since ConocoPhillips sold its 20 per cent stake in the company in 2012. Facing falling yields at its conventional west Siberian oilfields, Lukoil is in a hurry to unlock the tight oil deposits lying deeper underground. The tie up with Total, outlined in a memo last December and finalized this week, could provide the key.

Total, like other international majors, is moving ahead with the Bazhenov project despite the threat of western sanctions hanging over the Russian oil industry.

So far the US and the European Union have taken reprisals against Russian officials close to Vladimir Putin to punish the Kremlin for annexing Ukraine’s Crimea. But advocates of tougher action say the oil industry that provides the Russian budget with huge export revenues and allows the Kremlin to pursue aggressive policies should be the primary target.

Reliant on Russia for substantial energy supplies, the EU is reluctant to hit the oil sector. But if Barack Obama decides to move ahead, the Russian activities of Baker Hughes, Schlumberger and Halliburton, – US oil services providers that are actively supporting the Bazhenov exploration effort – could be affected.

As international oil groups lobby behind the scenes against sanctions, they have found an unexpected supporter in Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oil tycoon and one of Putin’s most ardent foes.

Khodorkovsky, who spent ten years in jail after falling out with the Kremlin, told the BBC this week that sanctions would make matters worse by isolating Russia and strengthening the hand of powerful nationalist groups that “cherish the concept of a besieged fortress.”

“Tangible assistance to Ukraine is much more important than sanctions against Russia,” he said. “People in Russia must see that a country integrated with the global world enjoys advantages and a county that is not integrated faces problems.”

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