France's Total takes stake in Russia's Arctic gas project

ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - French energy major Total will buy a 10 percent stake in a Russian Arctic gas project under a deal struck during Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Russia, and showing the Kremlin’s ability to find foreign partners despite Western sanctions.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of French oil giant Total is seen on a flag at La Defense business and financial district in Courbevoie near Paris, France. May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo - RC1EA60A2810

Total will buy the minority stake in the Novatek-led Arctic LNG-2 project, which would produce liquefied natural gas, Leonid Mikhelson, the head of Novatek, said on Thursday.

The deal was signed in St Petersburg, where French President Emmanuel Macron arrived to take part in an economic forum, seen as Russia’s shop window for attracting foreign investment, and held three hours of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The agreement solidifies Total’s footprint in Russia, the world’s second-largest natural gas producer after the United States.

Novatek, Total and their Chinese partners already started producing gas on the Arctic Yamal peninsula last year.

LNG production itself in Russia is not sanctioned, however Russian companies’ ability to raise financing is constrained by the punitive measures introduced for Moscow’s role in Ukrainian conflict and alleged meddling in the U.S. elections in 2016.

Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne, asked by reporters whether Arctic LNG can be “sanction bullet proof” on the sidelines of Macron’s meeting with Putin, said: “nothing is sanction bullet proof”.

“The best way to be sanction bullet proof is to have no sanction,” he said.

Novatek was also in talks with Saudi Arabia about a possible participation in the project, which would produce up to 20 million tonnes of the frozen gas in 2022-2023.

Mikhelson valued the project at $25.5 billion, saying that the deal with Total, which owns almost 20 percent of Novatek, could be completed in the first quarter of 2019.

The final investment decision on Arctic LNG-2 is expected in the second half of 2019. Italy’s Saipem plans to take part in a tender for building a platform base for the project.

Total has an option to increase its stake in Arctic LNG-2 by a further 5 percent, Mikhelson said, while Novatek plans to keep its stake at no less than 60 percent in the project.

Russia plans to double its share of the global LNG market from about 4 percent now by 2020. Qatar is the biggest LNG exporter, with a 30 percent market share.

Reporting by Oksana Kobzeva, Denis Pinchuk and Michel Rose; writing by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Alexandra Hudson