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2015-04-24 22:00:00

THE NEW RUSSIAN EMPIRE – 5

THE NEW RUSSIAN EMPIRE – 5

The fourth part is here.

The UK is to force Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman to sell a dozen North Sea gas fields owned by his $10bn energy fund L1 Energy, giving him just three months to comply or lose operating rights.

In a statement on Monday, Britain's Department of Energy and Climate Change stepped up the pressure on Mr Fridman's LetterOne Group to dispose of the fields, acquired as part of a €5.1bn deal in March to buy Germany utility RWE's oil and gas arm.

Ed Davey, UK energy secretary, is for the first time using ministerial powers enabling him to revoke North Sea operating licences. He has imposed a three-month deadline on the sale, but also offered to extend this to six months.

The move comes just weeks after L1 Energy — run by former BP chief executive Lord Browne — began preparing the sale of the assets in an attempt to avert a high-profile legal battle.

The British government has already voiced its opposition to the L1 Energy deal on the grounds that future sanctions against Russia could shut down the gasfields and imperil North Sea supplies. But its initial response met with a furious reaction from Mr Fridman, who threatened legal action before exploring a disposal.

Mr Davey's latest move appears designed to hold Mr Fridman to the proposed disposal, amid speculation that LetterOne could wait until after the May general election to test the ground with a new administration before proceeding.

Though DECC's deadline is after the election, there is now limited time for L1 Energy to find a buyer in a depressed North Sea market, where deal making has all but dried up following a collapse in oil prices.

"This decision was taken after a thorough review of all relevant information as well as obtaining cross-government views," the department said on its website. It added that Mr Davey would await LetterOne's response to his offer to give it up to six months to dispose of the fields.

L1 Energy declined to comment.

The case highlights how Russian businessmen risk finding themselves caught 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.

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 gasfields if more sanctions were imposed.

But, rather than risk a distracting legal battle, Mr Fridman is understood to be ready to press on with building an international energy business without the North Sea gasfields, which account for 3 to 5 per cent of UK output. No final decision has been taken.

With other sellers of North Sea assets including French oil major Total also in the market, agreeing on a valuation could be tricky.

L1 Energy has also decided there is little potential for growth in the British North Sea, despite tax cuts announced in the UK Budget last month, 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.

ft.com

Tags: UK, RUSSIA, GAS, RWE, LETTERONE, BP

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