Russia's state oil giant Rosneft said Tuesday it had opened talks with the British energy group BP on acquiring a stake in the troubled but lucrative TNK-BP joint venture it co-owns with four tycoons.
The announcement follows weeks of denials by Russia's largest oil company of any ownership interest in a venture that has grown into the country's fourth largest crude producer since being formed in 2003.
BP said on June 1 that it was seeking buyers for its 50 percent stake in TNK-BP because of continuing boardroom disputes with the powerful billionaires who jointly operate the company.
"Rosneft announces that, in connection with BP's recent statements regarding its intention to pursue a potential sale of its participation in TNK-BP, Rosneft has informed BP of Rosneft's interest in a potential acquisition of such participation," the company said in a statement.
"As a result, the parties agreed to commence negotiations on this matter and signed a non-disclosure agreement."
Rosneft said it had also informed the tycoons who operate their stake in TNK-BP through the Alfa Access Renova (AAR) consortium of their interest in BP's stake.
The state firm did not disclose the size of the stake under discussion.
AAR announced last week that it had opened negotiations on acquiring half of BP's shares in the joint venture -- a 25 percent stake estimated to be worth at least $10 billion (8.3 billion euros).
The TNK-BP shareholders' agreement gives the tycoons three months to negotiate a deal with BP first but does not keep the British firm from holding talks with other interested parties.
The announcement provides an opening for BP to formally resume its ties with the Russian state a year after seeing its $16 billion Arctic exploration alliance with Rosneft blocked by protests from the four billionaires.
The Arctic deal -- seen by world majors to be the path to a vast new energy source whose importance is growing with continuing volatility in the Middle East -- eventually went to the US super-major ExxonMobil.
Rosneft has since struck two more Arctic agreements with global majors. BP had been left out of those talks.
The Russian company's statement hinted broadly that BP stood to benefit long term from a deal with Rosneft.
"Rosneft believes that an acquisition of BP's interest in TNK-BP would be in the best interest of both Rosneft's and BP's shareholders and would lead to further development of TNK-BP," the statement said.
BP has reaped nearly $20 billion in dividend payments since forming the joint venture at the start of what promised to be a new era of Russian openness to investment from the world's biggest energy firms.
TNK-BP has since developed into one of the top 10 private oil producers in the world and is currently one of Russia's largest owners of so-called greenfield projects that focus on the development of new reserves.
But that upside has been clouded for BP by a history of tensions with the Russian government that has seen the group's chief executive forced out of the country and the firm lose access to vital fields.