Sunday, 12 September 2010

Gazprom may buy Total's UK petrol stations

French energy group Total, said it is reviewing the future of its
directly-owned forecourts. Photograph Ian Waldie/Getty Images The Russians may be coming - to a petrol station near you, if the latest
upheaval in the oil industry comes to pass. French energy group Total wants
to sell off up to 500 UK forecourts and Gazprom from Moscow is an interested

The Muscovites have long eyed a major move into Britain but backed off after
ideas of taking over British Gas triggered a minor political earthquake in

Gazprom declined to comment about its latest plans, but well-placed sources
in Russia told the Guardian that its oil arm, Gazprom Neft, was looking at
the petrol station assets.

Total, which was recently fined £3.6m for its role in the Buncefield fuel
refinery fire in Hertfordshire in 2005, said it was reviewing the future of
480 directly owned forecourts and contracts to supply 300 franchised-out

The French company accounts for 9% of the UK market, selling more than 3bn
litres of fuel and lubricants each year, and recently put its Lindsey oil
refinery in North Lincolnshire up for sale. But the company, which employs
6,500 staff and is said to support 35,000 others, says it will not quit the

Gazprom, which is controlled by the state, provides a quarter of all
mainland Europe's gas. The Kremlin has been accused by the west of using
energy as a political weapon after it cut off supplies to the Ukraine and

Gazprom Neft is keen to expand outside Russia. It recently bought the
service stations and other interests of the main oil company in Serbia.

David Clark, a former UK government adviser who has been critical of Gazprom
in the past, said he did not see any possible strategic threat from Russia
buying British petrol stations but added: "I don't understand why a heavily
indebted Gazprom goes round buying downstream assets when it needs to spend
large amounts on getting gas out of the ground."

Britain and Russia have enjoyed an uneasy political relationship over the
past decade but Russian oligarchs have bought up everything from Chelsea
football club and the Independent newspaper to auto firm TVR.

BP, which is one of Russia's biggest foreign investors through the joint
venture TNK-BP, has also been through turbulent times. BP and some other oil
companies have long claimed that retailing petrol in Britain brings
relatively little reward given the intense competition from supermarkets.
They point out that the bulk of the pump price goes to the government in

Critics have often argued that the claims are motivated by an attempt to
calm angry motorists who resent the very high fuel prices in Britain and the
massive global profits produced by the oil majors.

Almost 2,000 petrol stations have closed over the past six years, with big
oil companies preferring to spend their money on the "upstream" exploration
and production side of the business, where profit margins are higher.

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