It was a week Eivind Reiten is unlikely to forget. On Oct. 1, the oil and gas arm of Hydro, an Oslo-based energy-and-metals company he was running, completed a $36 billion merger with Statoil, its beefier Norwegian rival, creating the world's largest offshore energy operator. Five days later, Reiten hosted his country's King and Queen in Nyhamna, a third of the way up Norway's west coast, at the official launch of a record-breaking gas-production and -processing project forged by Hydro to harness gas from 75 miles (120 km) away under the Norwegian Sea.
But the week wasn't all sweet. Between the creation of StatoilHydro, as the company is known for now (the firm is still mulling over a permanent name change), and the royal ceremony, Reiten was generating headlines of his own. On the day of the merger, StatoilHydro announced it had launched a probe into the legality of approximately $7 million in consultancy fees and expenses Hydro paid as part of its oil operations in Libya. Although it has not disclosed the name of the consultancy or what laws Hydro might have broken, StatoilHydro said the payments came to light during the merger process. Reiten wasn't involved in Hydro's energy operations when those payments began in 2000--he was boss of the company's aluminum division at the time--but the potential conflict of interest during the investigation left him little choice but to resign as the combined company's first chairman. (He remains CEO of Hydro's aluminum and power businesses, which were not part of the merger.) "It's been an eventful week," Reiten, 54, told TIME amid the icy rain in Nyhamna. "Both for good and bad."
Quite an understatement. But for all the embarrassment of Reiten's early exit, StatoilHydro faces challenges that will linger long after that hubbub is over. StatoilHydro is operating in a market that has changed drastically since oil was first struck off the coast of Norway in the late 1960s. After waves of mergers in the U.S. and Europe, and with the growing dominance of nationally owned energy companies worldwide, the oil and gas industry is increasingly ruled by a handful of giants. Though StatoilHydro leads the world in offshore extraction, it's dwarfed by diversified behemoths like BP, ExxonMobil and Gazprom. How can a midsize niche player from Norway possibly thrive in this new hypercompetitive era?
For decades, Statoil and Hydro relied on the plentiful reserves on the Norwegian continental shelf for almost all their output; last year that area off the country's north and west shores accounted for more than four-fifths of the two firms' production. That bounty has made this nation of just 4.6 million people rich. Government taxes on the country's oil business--Norway is the world's fifth largest exporter by volume--have helped bloat Norway's national pension fund to around $350 billion. But those good times couldn't last forever. With fields beginning to dry up, oil production has slid to 2.6 million bbl. a day this year, from 3.5 million six years ago, says John Olaisen, Oslo-based energy analyst at Carnegie, a Nordic investment bank. For Helge Lund, 44, formerly CEO of Statoil and now chief of the combined company, the message couldn't be clearer: "If we're going to grow the company," he says at StatoilHydro's office in Oslo, "we have to grow outside Norway."
And outside Norway, the competition is fierce. As the world's demand for energy swells, petroleum-pumping countries like Russia and Venezuela "are asserting a higher degree of national control over [oil and gas] developments and leaving less room for non-national companies to participate," says Peter Mellbye, StatoilHydro's head of international exploration and production. While key Middle Eastern nations have long held their domestic oil companies and development projects in a tight grip, a more protectionist stance among energy powers elsewhere has, Mellbye says, "fundamentally changed the picture."
The trends toward consolidation and nationalization, in fact, helped drive the Norwegian merger. To a government or national oil company looking for overseas partners to help exploit domestic resources, seeing two Norwegian firms, both largely state owned, jostling for the same openings could be "confusing," says Mellbye. "They thought there would be some political preference given from the Norwegian authorities, and then on that basis they could make a choice," he says. "But that was never done." The two companies began negotiations late last year, and when in December they brought their merger proposal to the government, it was quickly approved. (The government owns about two-thirds of StatoilHydro.) Now that the two firms are one, says Mellbye, foreign partners will know that Norway's political support for the company's participation is unconflicted.
The first test of StatoilHydro's newfound unity was recently passed in Russia. After earlier negotiating as two separate firms, the combined company reached a deal in late October with Gazprom, Russia's state-owned energy company, to help it develop Shtokman, a vast gas field in the Barents Sea. StatoilHydro secured a 24% share of a specially created company that will own the project's infrastructure. French rival Total earlier this year secured a similar stake.
But a united front won't always be enough to eclipse StatoilHydro's biggest rivals. After the megamergers of the late 1990s--such as Exxon with Mobil and BP with Amoco--the Norwegian firm ranks as only the 10th largest in the world in production. StatoilHydro might churn out 1.9 million bbl. per day, but that's less than half the daily output of, say, BP.
Yet what the Norwegian firm lacks in size, it could well make up for in expertise. Many onshore reserves, which are relatively easy to exploit, are being depleted. So Big Oil is being forced offshore into increasingly complex projects, often at great depths and in harsh conditions. "Each barrel of oil produced tomorrow contains a higher degree of R&D than a barrel produced yesterday," Reiten, a former Norwegian Minister for Petroleum and Energy, told TIME a couple of days before his resignation. With StatoilHydro's decades of experience operating in the tricky terrain and climate off Norway's coast, the company could become the industry specialist at tackling the world's most difficult jobs.