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Thu, Jan 19, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Gazprom wants to become major UK supplier

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, is planning an assault on the UK market with plans to provide 20 percent of Britain's gas by 2015, possibly through the ?10 billion (US$17.68 billion) takeover of a company such as Scottish Power.

The world's biggest gas producer admits the recent spat with Ukraine has damaged its image but insists this is because Western politicians have reverted to "cold war" rhetoric.

In an interview, Gazprom's deputy chairman, Alexander Medvedev, insisted that Britain had nothing to fear from sourcing energy from his company, and from Russia.

"We now have a good wholesale business in the UK with big industrial customers and power stations. We are aiming to secure 20 percent of the market by 2015," he said.

Gazprom has so far steered clear of supplying domestic users directly, in the way British Gas does, but it also has ambitions in this area.

"To start from scratch in retail would be impossible -- but through acquisitions, yes, we do not rule this out," Medvedev said.

One way of speeding up this process would be to acquire an existing energy supply business such as that of Scottish Power which has 5 million domestic energy customers in Britain and was in recent takeover talks with E.ON, the German energy services provider.

"We are looking at such opportunities now. We are not afraid of such size as Scottish Power but we have no concrete plans at this moment," said Medvedev, who pointed out that such an acquisition would give Gazprom a direct route to UK householders.

The purchase of a big oil company in Britain or elsewhere has not been ruled out either.

The acquisition of Russian rival Sibneft gave Gazprom a substantial oil presence for the first time and it would like to add to that, he said.

Gazprom spends US$10 billion a year on investment "and with our credit rating it is not hard to raise more money. The banks are happy to lend to us," Medvedev said.

The ambitious Russian plans will alarm some British politicians and local gas company rivals but come at a time when the UK is seeing a dramatic fall-off in domestic North Sea oil and gas supplies.

An energy review is to be launched by the government on Monday to examine whether the UK needs a new generation of nuclear power stations or whether it can find another means of securing supply and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear power paired with renewables is seen as one way of preventing the country becoming overly dependent on foreign gas imports which some experts say will provide 90 percent of our gas by 2020.

The decision by Russia to cut off supplies to Ukraine on Jan. 1 was seen by some in London and Washington as a wake-up call. They believed the spat was a symbol of how Russian President Vladimir Putin could use Gazprom as a vehicle for geopolitical ambition.

This shook confidence in Russia as a gas provider and led the former UK energy minister Brian Wilson to say that it pointed out the dangers of Britain becoming dependent on Moscow gas.

Medvedev said of the Ukraine row: "We as Gazprom acted in this as a commercial organization. If Russia wanted to use gas as a political weapon then surely it would have used it after the [Orange] revolution period. We started negotiating with Ukraine about 2006 gas deliveries in March 2005 and used European rules as initiated by Ukraine. In the absence of such agreement on Jan. 1 we had to stop deliveries. But there was only one day when Ukraine took gas [bound for western Europe] from the export pipeline," he said.

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