UPDATE 2-Three Gassled partners to file suit against Norway over pipeline tariff cut
* Three partners will file a suit early next year
* A fourth one considering its options
* Government says price cut stimulates exploration
By Gwladys Fouche
OSLO, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Three partners in the Gassled natural gas pipeline will file a lawsuit against the Norwegian government to try to overturn a decision to cut gas transport tariffs, which they say would cost them $6.6 billion in lost earnings over 20 years.
A group of international investors have put $5.1 billion into Gassled in recent years. They include the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, Swiss bank and France's Caisse des Depots.
In January the previous centre-left government imposed cuts in tariffs the Gassled network charges energy firms to transport gas from North Sea platforms to processing plants in Norway and terminals in Britain, Germany, France and Belgium.
The new centre-right government on Friday confirmed that decision, which has disappointed the Gassled partners, who last week met with the oil and energy minister to try to convince him to reverse the decision.
"We will challenge the decision in court," Kurt Georgsen, head of Silex Gas, which is wholly owned by Germany's Allianz told Reuters on Friday. "We will submit it as soon as possible, probably early next year."
Georgsen said his firm would file the suit together with two other partners, Infragas, owned by Canada's Public Sector Pension Investment Board, and Solveig Gas, representing the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Allianz, and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.
"We are extremely disappointed," Knud Noerve, the head of Infragas, told Reuters.
He noted that leading figures in both parties in the government coalition, the Conservatives and the Progress Party, had said during the election campaign that the decision should be reviewed. Elections took place on Sept. 9.
"Our initial reaction is that this a break of promises made, especially from the Progress Party," Georgsen said.
Neither Georgsen nor Noerve would say whether a suit would also be filed against firms the stakes were bought from - Total , Statoil and Royal Dutch Shell.
The partners would now stick to their contractual commitments and not invest in future pipeline development projects. Prior to the tariff cut, further investments would have been to buy stakes in the $4.5 billion, 480-km Polarled pipeline once it is completed in late 2016.
"We will stick to what we have to do in our contractual obligations," said Georgsen. "Polarled is not required within existing contractual obligations."
A fourth partner in Gassled, Njord Gas, said it was also considering legal action but had not yet made a decision.
"We are surprised by the decision that they are not willing to look at the tariff regime again," Dan Jarle Floelo, head of Njord Gas, told Reuters. "We are assessing the situation."
Njord Gas is owned by Swiss bank UBS and France's Caisse des Depots.
"GOOD FOR EXPLORATION"
Earlier on Friday the oil ministry said the new tariffs, which are up to 90 percent lower in some cases, would be maintained to stimulate exploration and would benefit Norway's maturing oil and gas industry.
"Good resource management means that the profits should be taken out of the fields and not the infrastructure," the ministry said. "Tariffs on infrastructure are reduced when the assumed rate of return is achieved."
"Lower tariffs will stimulate exploration, development and production of oil and gas, enhancing the competitiveness of Norwegian gas," it added.
The government has argued the tariffs were originally set up to give investors a 7 percent return on assets but the actual return was 10 percent in 2012 and seen at 10.5 percent in 2028.
Gassled is 45-percent owned by international investors. The Norwegian state holds 46 percent via Petoro while state-controlled Statoil owns 5 percent. The rest is held by foreign energy and utility firms.
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