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TNK-BP dispute triggered by Iraq oil project row


Times Online
June 27, 2008

TNK-BP dispute triggered by Iraq oil project row

A dispute over an oil project in Iraq was the “final straw” that triggered a public falling out over control of TNK-BP, according to BP’s partners in the Russian joint venture.

Speaking to The Times yesterday, Stan Polovets, chief executive of AAR, the consortium that represents four Russian oligarchs who control 50 per cent of TNK-BP, also accused BP of secretly negotiating with the Kremlin for up to three years to force them to sell their stake to Gazprom or another state-controlled Russian company.

The allegations, rejected by BP yesterday, are the latest attack on the UK oil group in a feud with AAR. It reached a climax this month when TNK-BP’s American chief executive, Bob Dudley, was hauled before prosecutors in Moscow after a series of mysterious raids on the group’s offices by security agents. TNK-BP is also facing an environmental inquiry and difficulties securing visas for key workers.

Mr Polovets sought to portray BP, which also owns half of TNK-BP, as a stifling business partner that used Mr Dudley and expatriate secondees to build a “parallel management” in the joint venture to pursue its own agenda.

A BP spokesman dismissed the claims as “ludicrous” and said that the secondees were precisely the technical experts who had helped to resuscitate what had been an ailing company by boosting oil production, revenues and taxes paid to the Russian Government.

Nevertheless, Mr Polovets insisted that the dispute was “all about poor performance”.

The original agreement that created TNK-BP in 2003 confined its investment to Russia and Ukraine, but Mr Polovets expressed anger that BP had rejected overseas expansion plans from AAR. He said that a dispute over a proposed development in Irbil province in the Kurdish zone of northern Iraq last autumn was the incident that blew the disagreement into the open.

No major Western oil group has signed contracts with the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan amid concern that it lacks legitimacy and that Baghdad could later annul contracts.

However, Mr Polovets claimed that BP’s rejection of the proposal, which he said came after pressure from the US State Department, forced AAR to break cover over the dispute. “Tensions had existed since day one, which is natural in a 50-50 company, but we had always found a way until now to resolve it without taking it to the public domain,” he said.

A BP spokesman said AAR had gone on to pursue its interests in Iraqi Kurdistan through an affiliate, Norbest.

Mr Polovets said that AAR had received information that had indicated that BP was trying to engineer a sale of AAR’s stake to another party. “We have information from the Russian Government that BP has been in discussions with various agencies about a possible scenario involving AAR’s exit from TNK-BP and looking for assurances that if AAR sells out these shares could be sold to a Russian state-owned company,” he said. “These discussions were held despite AAR’s numerous declarations that it was not interested in selling its shares.”

BP said the claims were groundless. “We have no control over the Russian Government,” a spokesman said.

AAR is calling for Mr Dudley to resign to be replaced with an independent chief executive from outside BP.

Mr Polovets said AAR had no intention of selling its stake. He said: “We are convinced that there will not be a change in ownership in the foreseeable future and shareholders have no choice but to reach a compromise. We would prefer this were reached through compromise, but we are prepared to take all legal action at our disposal to protect our interests in TNK-BP.”

Fresh problems emerged yesterday as TNK-BP’s main operating subsidiary, TNK-BP Holdings, held its annual meeting. The Russian co-owners said election of a new board for the oil group’s main listed subsidiary was illegal and they threatened legal action.

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