(Adds analyst's comment in the third and fourth paragraphs, along with background and no-comment from Statoil after sixth paragraph.)
Russian state oil company Rosneft (>> Rosneft' NK OAO) and Norway's Statoil ASA (STO, STL.OS) have agreed to form a joint venture to develop Russia's mostly untapped offshore energy resources in the Arctic and are expected to sign the deal later Saturday, two people familiar with the matter told Dow Jones Newswires.
The deal is expected to be structured similar to the ones Rosneft signed in April with Exxon Mobil Corp. (>> Exxon Mobil Corporation) and Italy's Eni SpA (E, ENI.MI) and follows Russia's approval of long-awaited tax breaks for the potentially rich offshore fields.
"The deal has been discussed for some time, and it's really good that it's finally done," Troika Dialog analyst Valery Nesterov said.
"It's a sign that Russia is eager to intensify exploration at the Arctic shelf, and is trying to minimize risks by diversifying the partners," he added.
Russia is willing to give a prominent role to foreign companies that are willing to develop the shelf, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, said April 16, following the deal with Exxon. Russia is facing declining oil production from its traditional oil regions and is eager to attract Western energy companies with money and expertise to develop the Arctic shelf.
An industry source said the role of Sechin, who is expected not to join the new Russian government to be announced in the following days, was prominent at all three deals.
Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, who is to be inaugurated Monday, will also be present at the signing ceremony, people said, as he was with the previous two.
Statoil is not a novice to Russia, being one of the first of the Western majors to open an office in Moscow after the collapse of communism. However, until recently it has failed to secure any big deal in the country. Statoil is part of an international consortium, together with Total SA (TOT, FP.FR) and Gazprom (OGZPY, GAZP.RS), to develop the Shtokman liquefied natural gas project off the Russian Arctic Circle, but the project has suffered a number of delays on the investment decision.
Together with Russia's second-largest oil company, Lukoil Holdings (LUKOY, LKOH.RS), Statoil is developing the West Qurna-2 field in Iraq but is planning to sell its stake to the partner.
Rosneft and Statoil declined to comment.
-By Alexander Kolyandr, Dow Jones Newswires; +7 495 232-9192 firstname.lastname@example.org