In Depth

Exxon Mobil 'seeks waiver' from Russia sanctions

Oil giant once under the control of Rex Tillerson wants to resume its oil exploration venture with Rosneft

Oil giant Exxon Mobil, whose former chief executive Rex Tillerson is now US Secretary of State, has reportedly applied for a waiver from US Treasury sanctions on Russia so it can continue to drill in the Black Sea in a venture with the Russian state oil company Rosneft.

While the waiver application was launched under the Obama administration, before Tillerson's appointment, it comes "at a delicate time in Russian-American relations, with rising tensions over the war in Syria and a looming congressional inquiry into reports of Russian efforts to influence the United States presidential election", says the New York Times.

The request has provoked uproar, with Republican senator John McCain, asking: "Are they crazy?"

Why are there sanctions on Russia?

Washington and the EU imposed economic sanctions on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The sanctions "prevent US companies from dealings with Rosneft involving technology transfer, and also target Rosneft chief - and Putin confidant - Igor Sechin", says Foreign Policy.

However, despite the Ukraine crisis deepening, "Exxon continued pressing for deeper involvement in Russia's oil industry", says the New York Times.

Why does Exxon want a waiver?

"The financial incentives for Exxon are powerful when it comes to Russia," says CNN. "The undeveloped oil fields near the Black Sea are thought to be the most promising in the Russian Arctic." 

Last year, Tillerson said the company was "very anxious to get back to work there", referring to a deal struck between Exxon and Rosneft before the sanctions were implemented. "In Russia, we're there for the long term," new chief executive Darren Woods told Forbes in February.

Will they get a waiver?

It's unlikely. Hal Eren, a former official in the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said such waivers were rarely requested or granted and that in most cases, permission was given only for environmental or safety reasons.

"I don't think they would issue a licence, especially given the political context in which this takes place," he added.

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also said the waiver should be denied.

"Until Russia abides by the Minsk accords and ends its illegal occupation of Crimea, the only changes to sanctions should be their intensification, not their dilution," he said.

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