Total SA related crash removes Kremlin oil ally
22 Oct 2014
National Post – (Latest Edition)
By Mat thew Campbe ll in London and Tara Patel in Paris
Crash removes Kremlin oil ally
Christophe de Margerie’s last act as chief executive of Total SA left no room for doubt about his feelings toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
In a Moscow speech hours before the plane crash that took his life Monday, Mr. de Margerie said U.S. and European Union sanctions on the country were “unfair and unproductive,” and that he opposed efforts to render it “isolated from the major global economic and political process.”
Appearing before a receptive audience that included Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and a host of Russian executives, he cited his work as co-chair of a Franco-Russian business body alongside Gennady Timchenko — a commodities billionaire who was one of the first targets of U.S. sanctions.
Mr. de Margerie died when his airplane struck a snowplow on a Moscow runway, ending the life of one of the oil industry’s most prominent figures.
The 63-year-old was returning to Paris when his private jet crashed in poor visibility while taking off from Vnukovo airport just before midnight. Three crew members were also killed.
Mr. de Margerie’s plane, a Dassault Aviation SA Falcon, struck an airport vehicle, caught fire and dropped back down on the runway, according to a statement from Russia’s Investigative Committee. The driver of the snowplow was drunk, the committee said, an accusation the man’s lawyer denied.
Mr. de Margerie’s death removes from the scene a businessman who rarely shied away from geopolitical debates and became one of Russia’s most outspoken allies in its efforts to avoid economic quarantine, willing to say what others only dared think. Although European corporate giants from Siemens AG to Renault SA have built close relationships with Russia, most business leaders have preferred to keep their lobbying private to avoid offending governments committed to punishing Mr. Putin.
“Christophe was an extraordinary individual who had nurtured his relationships with Russia and many other international players on a person-to-person basis,” said John Hofmeister, former U.S. president of Royal Dutch Shell PLC and now CEO of advocacy group Citizens for Affordable Energy. “The major players in Russia operate at multiple levels of visibility. Christophe was singular in his approach.”
Mr. de Margerie had good reason to oppose efforts to fray Russia’s economic ties with other major economies in the wake of its annexation of Crimea and the simmering civil war in Ukraine. Under his leadership, Total bet big on the world’s largest country by land mass, partnering with OAO Novatek to develop an Arctic gas-export terminal and hunting with OAO Lukoil for so-called tight oil deposits in Siberia.
Since taking over as CEO in 2007, Mr. de Margerie repeatedly told audiences at the endless conferences he attended around the world that meeting the growth in global energy demand would be impossible without Russia’s vast reserves.
After buying a stake in Novatek, Russia in 2013 became Total’s biggest source of production after Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates and Norway, providing about 9% of its daily oil output.
In May, Mr. de Margerie travelled to the annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum, an annual business conclave convened by Mr. Putin and shunned by American executives at the urging of President Barack Obama’s administration.
Russia wasn’t the first controversial country that Mr. de Margerie sought to do business with even at the risk of political opprobrium. Total was working on developing the giant South Pars natural gas project in Iran until sanctions designed to halt its nuclear program drove the company to pull out in 2009.
This year Mr. de Margerie said he’d like to re-enter the country as soon as political conditions allow. He met with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani along with other energy CEOs in Davos, Switzerland.
Total said in a statement that its board would meet in Paris to consider the appointment of a new CEO.
Explaining his stance on Russia in May of this year, Mr. de Margerie told reporters he believed economic sanctions were an ineffective way to resolve conflicts between countries. Businesses, he argued, could serve as diplomatic intermediaries in political disputes, and “the relationship between politics and companies is a good way to calm things.”