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The Sunday Times: Gazprom revealed as mystery Imperial Energy suitor

November 4, 2007
Louise Armitstead and Grant Ringshaw

THE financial arm of Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled oil giant, has emerged as the mystery bidder that is attempting to buy 25% of Imperial Energy, the embattled London-listed oil company.

Last week, Imperial, which has a market value of £640m, told the stock market it had received an unsolicited approach from an unnamed investor which wanted to take a stake via the issue of new shares at a discount to the current price.

The company, which had planned to raise £173m by placing new shares, amounting to about 25% of the enlarged company, said it was considering its response.

The talks between Gazprombank and Imperial, which is being advised by Merrill Lynch, are thought to be at an early stage.

Analysts said that Imperial needs a tie up with a powerful group in Russia after it ran into political problems in the country in recent months.

Imperial’s shares have been volatile because of accusations from regulators in Russia that the company overstated its reserves.

In April, the deputy head of Russia’s environmental protection agency, Oleg Mitvol, accused the company of breaching an operating licence and of inflating reserves data.

But a deal to pump oil into Russia’s national pipeline network, and a positive production update from the company, has seen Imperial shares rise recently.

Analysts said that Imperial needs to raise finance to continue to fund its exploration interests in Russia and also other undeveloped fields in Kazakhstan.

Gazprom, which controls the world’s largest gas reserves and is aiming to be the world’s first company worth $1,000 billion (£480 billion), has huge influence in Russia and is closely aligned with the president, Vladimir Putin. In the past the gas giant has been used in what critics have slammed as economic and resource nationalism by the Kremlin.

Imperial is also thought to have held talks with the regional government of Tomsk about a strategic deal, a move which analysts said would make the group less vulnerable to political influence from Moscow.

Imperial already has a working relationship with Gazprom after it signed a cooperation deal with Gazprom Neft, the group’s oil subsidiary, in July last year.

According to The Banker magazine, Gazprombank is the 137th largest bank in the world in terms of capital. The bank is the third biggest in central and eastern Europe. Gazprombank had been aiming to pull off a stock-market flotation this year, but delayed its plans until 2008.

Gazprombank wants to raise new capital after a surge in lending. In 2006, its loan portfolio soared 54% to $96 billion while its assets grew 69% to 724 billion roubles (£14.1 billion). Its expansion plans include opening a London branch.

http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/natural_resources/article2799357.ece

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