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2015-03-20 18:40:00

THE NEW RUSSIAN EMPIRE - 3

THE NEW RUSSIAN EMPIRE - 3

The second story is here

Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman is preparing to sell a dozen North Sea gasfields at the heart of a fierce row over ownership, in a move that would avert a high-profile legal battle with the UK government.

Two weeks after an acrimonious spat with Britain's energy secretary, Mr Fridman's $29bn LetterOne Group is close to hiring advisers, thought to be Morgan Stanley, to sound out buyers for the fields, according to people familiar with the plans.

The €5bn takeover of Dea, the oil and gas arm of Germany's RWE, had alarmed the government, which is against the billionaire's purchase, arguing that future sanctions against Russia could shut down the fields and imperil North Sea supplies.

The case highlights how Russian businessmen risk finding themselves in the crossfire because of international sanctions over the Ukraine conflict. The UK is the first western government to intervene in a corporate transaction over the risk of further punitive action against Moscow.

Ed Davey, UK energy secretary, set the stage for a tussle last month when he said he was "minded" to demand the sale of the fields to a third party. This prompted a strong public response from Luxembourg-based LetterOne, which threatened to seek a judicial review were the Dea deal blocked.

LetterOne, which is looking at a sale or an asset swap, had argued that a trust-style arrangement using a body based in the Netherlands would protect the fields if more sanctions were imposed.

Now, however, rather than risk becoming embroiled in a court battle, Mr Fridman is ready to press on with building an international energy business without the North Sea fields, which account for 3-5 per cent of UK gas output.

L1 Energy, the $10bn fund that owns Dea and which is run by former BP chief Lord Browne, believes its legal case is robust. But a lawsuit could be a costly and time-consuming distraction. People close to the plan insist no final decision has been taken and that L1 Energy is reviewing its options.

The fields are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and tax cuts being prepared for Wednesday's UK Budget could make the North Sea, where output has been in long-term decline, a more attractive prospect.

But, with other sellers including French oil major Total also in the market following a collapse in oil prices, agreeing on a valuation could be tricky. There is no timetable for closing a deal and any buyer is likely to be an offshore operator.

L1 Energy has no prospect of buying other UK North Sea assets while Russian companies and individuals are at risk of tighter sanctions.

But it has also decided there is little potential for growth in the region and will look elsewhere as it hunts "value" via partnership deals and acquisitions. Four-fifths of L1 Energy's activities are outside Britain — including in Norway, Egypt, Libya, Germany, Poland, Turkmenistan and Algeria.

Mr Fridman and his partner German Khan gained about $14bn in proceeds from the 2013 sale of their stake in Russian oil producer TNK-BP and want to use L1 Energy to realise their ambitions for expansion into oil. Bargains could be found after energy groups' shares, particularly those of US shale producers, have been hit by the plunge in crude prices.

Dea's total gas production was 2.6bn cubic metres in 2013, more than 500m cubic metres of which came from the UK.

L1 Energy declined to comment.

ft.com

Tags: RUSSIA, UK, LETTERONE, RWE, OIL, GAS, SANCTIONS

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