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Russia may tighten equity deals with large fields

Russia's Resources Ministry will propose easing access to state auctions of large oil, gas or metal deposits by foreign companies but will tighten control over large equity deals, minister Yuri Trutnev said on Monday.

Analysts said the measure if approved would bring clarity to rules by which the Kremlin will treat foreign investors who have themselves repeatedly called on Moscow to introduce a legal framework to policies often driven by resource nationalism.

"If before foreigners were not allowed to participate in strategic field auctions, now the mechanism of access has substantially eased," Trutnev, who has previously advocated caps on foreign majors, told reporters.

"They (foreign firms) will now have a chance to access strategic fields by applying for permission from a government commission," said Trutnev, who added his ministry was working on changes to the existing legislation.

He gave no further details but added the ministry was also reviewing proposals on legal changes that would tighten equity deals, involving firms which already control large deposits or fields of so-called strategic importance.

Under the proposals, the government should be simply notified about any equity deal involving a foreign-led firm buying a stake of under 10 percent in a Russian firm with a strategic deposit.

Any deal involving more than 10 percent should by cleared by the government, Trutnev said. No such clearance is required at the moment as the ministry has yet to submit, and the parliament to approve, the law, which would define what is a strategic deposit.

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Trutnev's ministry has been working on the new text of a subsoil law for several years but has recently decided to amend existing legislation to speed up work.

Ministries and security services have repeatedly clashed on the subject with proposals including total bans on deals with strategic deposits, including those already in private hands.

Ronald Smith, chief strategist at Alfa Bank, said the new proposal seemed to be a softening of tone for him as proposals could have been much tougher.

"The government was always talking about control, control, control. They always wanted a Russian company in control. For the big assets they had problems with foreigners... At worst this is neutral," he said.

Trutnev has previously said any field containing 70 million tonnes of oil, 50 billion cubic metres of gas, 50 tonnes of gold or 500,000 tonnes of copper should qualify as strategic. On Monday, he said those criteria would not change.

Earlier in the month the ministry identified strategic fields in several sectors, which can be distributed only to Russian majority-owned companies, including 31 gas fields.

Yakutia in Russia's Far East hosts most of the deposits on the list, including the Chayandinskoye field, which Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom had previously asked the government to give it out-of-competition rights to develop.

Several foreign firms have encountered problems in Russia's energy sector over the last year in what analysts say is a move by Russia to safeguard its resources from foreign interests.

Gazprom has asked U.S. Exxon Mobil (XOM.N: Quote, Profile, Research) to give up the idea of exporting gas to China from its Sakhalin-1 project on Russia's far eastern island of the same name, as it would leave the domestic market short.

Royal Dutch Shell was forced to cede control of the $22 billion Sakhalin-2 project to Gazprom last year after Russia's environmental watchdog agency threatened to strip it of production licenses for breaking ecological rules. 

© Reuters

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