VIENNA The partners in Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz II gas field are in talks to take a stake in the Nabucco consortium that is competing to build the first pipeline to deliver Azeri gas to Europe, Austria's economy and energy minister said on Monday.
"There are very concrete talks," Reinhold Mitterlehner told a news conference during talks on the Nabucco West project between the energy ministers of the countries through which the pipeline is planned to run and the Nabucco consortium partners.
The Shah Deniz II consortium has already signed a funding deal with Nabucco's rival, the more southerly Trans-Adriatic pipeline (TAP), and a Shah Deniz II stake in Nabucco is seen as vital for the northern route's chances.
The delivery of Azeri gas to Europe, expected to start in 2018 whichever pipeline is chosen, will loosen Russia's grip on European Union energy supplies.
Relations between the EU and Russia have been strained by an anti-trust case brought by the European Commission against Russia's Gazprom (GAZP.MM), which centers on complaints that the world's biggest gas company is hindering the flow of gas and mistreating its customers by linking the price of gas to oil.
Nabucco's six shareholders are Austrian energy group OMV (OMVV.VI), Germany's RWE (RWEG.DE), Hungary's MOL MOLB.BU through its gas pipeline operator FGSZ, Turkey's Botas, BEH of Bulgaria and Romania's Transgaz ROTGN.BX.
TAP's shareholders are EGL EGLGF.PK of Switzerland (42.5 percent), Norway's Statoil (STL.OL), (42.5 percent) and E.ON Ruhrgas of Germany (EONGn.DE) (15 percent).
MOL has said it is ready to sell its stake in Nabucco if necessary as it has concerns over the project's uncertain costs, gas supply sources and structure and management.
But Mitterlehner said on Monday that Hungary's political interest in the project continued, and OMV Chief Executive Gerhard Roiss said there was no talk of MOL withdrawing. "We have no sign that MOL wants to exit as a shareholder," he said.
Mitterlehner said a decision on which pipeline to use was expected from the Shah Deniz II partners - BP (BP.L), Azeri state firm SOCAR and Total (TOTF.PA) - in the first quarter of next year.
(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Mark Potter)