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Sunday Telegraph: Investors to quiz BP over Yukos bid

By Sylvia Pfeifer,
Last Updated: 12:13am BST 01/04/2007

Some of BP’s largest shareholders have expressed grave misgivings over the role of the British oil giant in the controversial auction of the remaining assets of Yukos, the bankrupt Russian oil group, last week.

At least two of BP’s top 20 shareholders are understood to be planning to raise the issue with the company in the next few weeks. They fear that BP’s reputation has suffered after TNK-BP, its Russian joint venture, took part in the auction of a stake in Rosneft, the state-controlled oil group, which belonged to Yukos.

TNK-BP abandoned its bid for the 9.44 per cent stake after less than 10 minutes, leaving just Rosneft in the running. Its swift departure fuelled speculation that it took part only to legitimise the process and curry favour with the Kremlin in a bid to safeguard its assets in the country. BP strenuously denies this.

“The expectation of TNK-BP was that it would export good corporate governance. But if nobody in the investor community puts up their hand and asks if this was the right thing to do, what would happen?” asked one shareholder.

News that BP would take part in the auction emerged just hours before Lord Browne, its chief executive, and his successor, Tony Hayward, met President Putin 10 days ago. Since TNK-BP was formed in August 2003, Russia has become a vital source of oil and gas revenues for the oil group. Last year BP’s share of TNK-BP’s output was 60 per cent higher than its total US production.

But fears have mounted in recent months that some of its assets could be seized by the Russian government, which has tightened its grip on the energy sector. Royal Dutch Shell, BP’s rival, was last year forced to surrender control of Sakhalin, its field in Siberia, to the state-owned Gazprom. Similarly, analysts fear that TNK-BP could be stripped of its licence to develop the Kovykta gas field in eastern Siberia, an important source of future production.

One top 10 shareholder said investors’ concerns over BP’s involvement in Russia were one reason for the company’s poorly performing share price, which has fallen from 723p to 552p in the past 12 months.

“[The auction] was not BP’s finest hour but I can see why they did it,” he said. “Our view is that it is part of the realpolitik of getting involved in Russia.”

This is not the first time investors have raised concerns over Western companies’ exposure to Russia. Last year F&C Asset Management, one of Britain’s biggest investors, threatened publicly to boycott the London listing of Rosneft, which had previously acquired Yukos’s main production unit at another controversial auction. F&C said the offering raised serious questions of corporate governance and legal risk. BP came under fire at the time for buying a 1 per cent stake in Rosneft.

A spokesman for BP said: “It was a TNK-BP decision [to take part in the auction] that was based on a genuine interest in the assets that were on offer.”

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