Tapping into Russia's oil market

From an office in Steamboat, Howard Cooper runs a massive oil field in Siberia

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— Howard Cooper's business card is printed on two sides English on one side, Russian on the other.

That's what you do when you're the president of the only publicly held American company that has all of its assets in Russia.

Cooper heads up Teton Petroleum Company from a modest suite of offices in the Ski Country Building on Burgess Creek Road.

Although Cooper's physical location is in Steamboat Springs, his focus is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean on a 70-square-mile patch of taiga close to the Agan River in western Siberia. That's where his company's seven oil wells are pumping out 2,800 barrels of crude a day. After splitting the oil production with other investors, net to Teton is 720 barrels per day.

On a frigid Wednesday in January, a significant portion of Cooper's attention is diverted to his computer screen, where a Web page maintained by Yahoo Finance is updating the fortunes of his company's stock. Teton Petroleum just had its shares approved for trading on the Over the Counter Bulletin Board in December.

"We've traded more than 700,000 shares today. That's a very good day," Cooper said.

He has been through a 5-year process leading to the point where his company can now deliver a solid stream of oil to western Europe. And with "market makers" on the OTC Bulletin Board drawing attention to his company's stock, he's seeking investors to supply the capital that will help him grow his company.

Teton Petroleum has tapped into an oil field of 107 million barrels either proven or probable. In 2001, Teton's field produced 324,358 barrels. It's small by Russian standards, but Cooper believes Teton is positioned to exploit a very profitable niche.

Cooper's path to drilling oil in Siberia is an unlikely one. He grew up in Denver and north of Meeker, then began his career as a cattle rancher in southern Wyoming. He also happened to have a finance degree from the University of Colorado.

When the oil business took off, he switched careers and became a "land man" for a Front Range company. His role was to close leases with landowners.

"I made oil and gas drilling plays in Colorado and Wyoming for 10 years," Cooper said. "I could understand what the ranchers wanted and I understood their point of view."

Cooper's career began to coalesce in 1990 when he and a group of buddies spent six months mountain biking through Russia. That trip opened his eyes to a couple of things.

"We biked through a lot of oil areas in Russia," Cooper recalls, "and I saw their oil sector needed western capital. I decided to get involved."

Upon his return, a reporter for KCNC Television in Denver, Anya Yermolenko, who happened to be a native Russian, interviewed him. She would become Cooper's wife.

Cooper relocated to New York, where he began to put a plan into action.

During 1991 and 1992 he worked on Wall Street for a company called AIG. One of the firm's areas of expertise involves indemnifying property in foreign oil fields. At the same time he worked for AIG, Cooper completed a master's degree in international affairs at Columbia University.

"I needed to understand how people were doing oil deals in Russia," he explained.

After gaining experience with AIG, Cooper became a managing partner and took a small equity stake in a company that successfully developed a large oil field in Khazakstan.

One of the things that Cooper came to understand about investment in the foreign oil industry was that although there were risks to be managed in Russia, there was also more opportunity.

In Texas, acquiring proven oil reserves still in the ground costs about $6 a barrel. In Columbia and Nigeria, where there is abundant political unrest, even pipeline terrorism, proven reserves cost about $4 a barrel. In Russia, proven reserves can be had for between 50 cents and $1 a barrel.

"Our strongest attribute is that we have no political risk, and no drilling risk," Cooper said.

In Khazakstan, his company had to barter approximately 50 percent of the value to other interests in that country. In Russia, oil companies could make much more favorable deals retaining as much as 87.5 percent of the value.

The other favorable factor was that during the Cold War, the old Soviet Union had drilled many oil fields in western Siberia, then "shut them in" to wait for the day when it was economically feasible to transport and sell the oil.

The geology in western Siberia is very uncomplicated, Cooper said it's an old ocean basin with cretaceous and Jurassic sands that lend themselves to easy drilling at depths to 7,000 feet.

The terrain is also very flat, and in many cases, there is no permafrost.

The main risk in Russia 10 years ago was of a political nature, Cooper said. But the regime of Vladimir Putin has resolved much of that risk.

"Putin is a lawyer who understands that you have to have laws to attract capital," Cooper said. Under Putin, Russia's economy has turned the corner, with one of the fastest growing stock markets in the world.

Cooper decided to form his own company American Tyumen Exploration Company (ATCO) in 1996. ATCO in turn purchased a 50 percent interest in the Russian oil company, Goloil, through another company called Goltech, at a cost of $700,000.

The company's attention was focused on a small proven oil field called the Eguryak, just 10 miles north of the giant Samotlor Oil field. With a proven or demonstrable 107 million barrels, Eguryak is large enough to be profitable, but small enough to fly beneath the radar of giant oil companies.

The business organization is a little complicated to the uninitiated Teton Petroleum is an oil and gas exploration and production company that conducts its active business solely through a 50 percent ownership interest in Goltech LLC, a Texas limited liability company. Goltech, in turn, operates solely through ownership of 70.59 percent interest in Goloil, a Russian closed joint stock company. Goloil owns the Eguryak license.

Teton's net interest in the enterprise is 8.5 million proven barrels of oil and 25.6 million probable barrels.

Cooper spent much of the last five years improving the company's ability to get the oil out of Siberia. Initially, the company had to build roads to the river so it could be trucked there in tankers. From there, it was shipped by barge to European markets. However, in the last year, Teton has been able to construct its own 25-mile long pipeline that allows it to deliver oil to the Samotlor field, where it pours into the Trans-Siberian pipeline. That step has allowed Teton to efficiently send its oil to Germany.

Cooper is optimistic about investing in Russia and the role petroleum will play in the country's economy. And he foresees that he will continue to run his company from Steamboat.

"Steamboat is a great place for us. There are a lot of educated people here," he said.

And it doesn't hurt that Anya, who works side by side with Cooper, is fluent in both English and Russian.

She has set up the company's computers to seamlessly receive e-mails from Siberia, and communicate directly with employees in the field.

With oil currently priced at an ideal $20 a barrel, and Russia exporting 3 million barrels a day, the Siberian fields will continue to play an important role in Russia's expanding economy, Cooper predicts.

"It's all sold for U.S. money and that's $60 million a day that goes back into Russia," he said.

His goals for his company include attracting more capital, drilling more oil wells, and expanding to other fields.

"Private capital is just fine," Cooper hinted.

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