Oil and Gas

UPDATE 1-TNK-BP CEO warns staff may have to leave Russia

(Adds details, background)

MOSCOW, June 30 (Reuters) - Up to 75 foreign employees of oil company TNK-BP TNBPI.RTS may soon have to leave Russia after Moscow authorities approved only half of the work permits requested by the firm at the heart of a high-profile shareholder dispute.

“We have been working with the Russian authorities and within Russian laws since April to resolve this issue, and will continue to do so,” TNK-BP Chief Executive Robert Dudley told Reuters via the company’s press service. “However, we have been given no grounds to believe these issues will be resolved before senior international staff and their families will have to leave Russia. Unfortunately, this now appears very likely.”

British oil major BP.L and a quartet of Russian and Russian-born billionaires, each of which own half of TNK-BP, have clashed publicly over the number three Russian oil company's strategy and structure.

The Russian shareholders have accused BP of limiting TNK-BP’s international expansion and employing too many foreign secondees from BP, accusations rejected by the British company.

Dudley applied to the Moscow authorities to extend working permits for a total of 146 international specialists at TNK-BP but the city on Monday cleared the request for only 71 specialists, a source close to TNK-BP told Reuters.

Billionaire German Khan, one of the Russian shareholders, had requested that the quota on international specialists be lowered to 63 from next year.

“The 71-person quota is a preliminary option for discussion. German Khan’s proposal was confirmed, along with a further eight specialists,” the source said. A final decision would be taken by July 7, the source added.

Yevgeny Chernetsov, deputy chairman of the Moscow official committee to which the proposals were made, said the committee had received two separate proposals from TNK-BP.

The two sides should agree on the required staff numbers and no deadline had been set, said Chernetsov.

He added there was no evidence the company was sticking to an earlier agreement to reduce gradually the number of foreign workers in the joint venture.

Many analysts believe the real dispute at TNK-BP is over future ownership of the company after a ban on shareholders selling their stakes expired in early 2008.

State energy groups Gazprom GAZP.MM and Rosneft ROSN.MM have long been rumoured to be seeking a stake in TNK-BP. (Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Paul Bolding)