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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Gasoline Suppliers Could Gain As China Bolsters Pump Prices

By SHAI OSTER
March 16, 2006
BEIJING — Chinese and foreign oil companies are racing to fill a bigger share of China's gas tanks.
China's gasoline market is among the fastest-growing in the world, as millions of affluent Chinese buy new cars. But even as the amount of gasoline sold has surged, profit margins haven't. Policy makers, afraid of sparking inflation, have capped fuel prices, causing some oil companies to incur losses.
That could change soon. Top officials have pledged to raise prices at the pump as part of a wider effort to encourage conservation and raise energy efficiency. China is also set to lift restrictions on wholesale fuel distribution by foreign companies by year-end as part of its World Trade Organization commitments. That could spell good news for BP PLC, Total SA, Royal Dutch Shell Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and other foreign companies seeking to sell here.
It remains unclear when and by how much the Chinese government will lift gasoline and diesel prices. David Hurd, a Beijing-based analyst for Deutsche Bank, says the government might raise gasoline prices 20%, while keeping diesel prices unchanged. Higher diesel prices could hurt China's tractor-driving farmers, whom China's leaders have made a priority to help as part of their effort to narrow the wealth gap between coast and countryside.
The volume of diesel sold in China is double that of gasoline sold, Mr. Hurd says.
A bidding war early this month for a stake in a small, independent chain of gasoline stations in Shanghai underscores the interest in the market. China National Offshore Oil Corp. — the country's biggest offshore oil producer by volume but a distant laggard in terms of retail gasoline sales — outbid several rivals for the chain of 22 stations. China National Offshore Oil is the state-owned parent of Hong Kong-listed Cnooc Ltd.
China's retail gasoline market is dominated by China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., known as Sinopec, which owns 56% of the gasoline stations in China, says energy consultancy Cambridge Energy Research Associates. Sinopec directly owns 27,000 gas stations across the country, and either partly owns or franchises an additional 4,000.
Sinopec sells enormous volumes of fuel, but has made scant profits because of the government's price restrictions. It has been hit harder than some of its competitors because it must buy lots of crude oil at high international prices and then sell refined products at a loss under the Chinese price-cap system. At the end of last year, the government gave Sinopec a subsidy of 10 billion yuan ($1.24 billion) to make up for the heavy losses it sustained.
Raising prices would help Sinopec improve its profit margins. But analysts say the company doesn't have the cash to expand operations, nor does it have the crude-oil supplies to feed many more stations.
“Now our goal is not to take up more gas stations in China…I think we've got enough,” says Wang Jiming, Sinopec's vice chairman of the board. “Now our goal is to focus on how to improve per-station efficiency.”
Hong Kong-listed Sinopec's stock has risen about 50% since the end of 2005 amid expectations of price changes. Sinopec shares rose 1.7% to HK$4.53 (58 U.S. cents) yesterday, up eight Hong Kong cents each.
Leading rival China National Petroleum Corp., known as PetroChina and with 24% of the retail market, could be in a stronger position to grow. The company is China's largest crude-oil producer by volume, and it pocketed huge profits last year by selling crude, whose prices have doubled since 2003. PetroChina's fat coffers and bigger oil reserves make it easier for it to expand in the retail gasoline market, analysts say.
PetroChina expects to start getting 200,000 barrels a day from a new pipeline from its field in Kazakhstan starting in May, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Agency. Huang Meilong, an analyst with Shenyin Wanguo Securities Co. in Shanghai, said PetroChina is more likely to buy up independent retailers to expand. Hong Kong-listed PetroChina rose five Hong Kong cents to HK$7.60 yesterday.
Foreign competitors also could benefit from the market overhaul, and many have plans to expand. Current rules limit the number of wholly owned gas stations foreign companies can have in China, effectively forcing them to partner with either PetroChina or Sinopec. But few are willing to pass up a chance to expand their presence in such a fast-growing market.
Foreign companies could make bigger profits once China permits them to distribute their own fuel to gas stations. Industry executives are hopeful that Beijing might further open the market to foreign players in a bid to foster more competition and help drive down gas prices.
Exxon Mobil, which operates 19 stations under the Esso brand in southern China, is working with Sinopec and Saudi Aramco to develop a sales-and-marketing joint venture that would eventually have 600 stations in the southern province of Fujian. That project was announced in 2004, but a formal agreement has yet to be signed.
France-based Total has announced plans to roll out 500 stations over six years in two joint ventures. BP is in the process of establishing 1,000 stations in joint ventures with PetroChina and Sinopec, while Royal Dutch Shell is rolling out 500 stations.
“The rise of the middle class, the rise of passenger-car vehicles — all means this will be an increasingly important market in transportation fuels,” says Terry Blaney, director of Shell China's downstream business.
–Zhou Yang contributed to this article.
Write to Shai Oster at [email protected] read more

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BLOOMBERG: Shell Shuts Tern Alpha North Sea Oil Platform Because of Fire

March 16 (Bloomberg) — Royal Dutch Shell Plc shut down 16,400 barrels a day of oil production at the Tern Alpha platform in the North Sea off Scotland following a fire and requiring the evacuation of workers.
The fire forced the removal of 110 out of 184 workers by helicopter from the platform to the nearby North Cormorant platform, said spokeswoman Lisa Givert in a telephone interview. All of the workers are safe, she said.
“I can confirm that there was an incident on the Tern Alpha platform beginning at 12:50 a.m. London time,'' said Givert.
Tern Alpha is located 105 miles northeast of Shetland in the North Sea, said Givert.
To contact the reporter on this story:
Christian Schmollinger in Singapore at [email protected] read more

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THE NEW YORK TIMES: Nigerian Militants Separate Oil Worker Hostages

By REUTERS
WARRI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigerian militants said on Wednesday they had separated three foreign oil workers in their captivity for strategic reasons, but did not intend to kill them.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has been holding two Americans and one Briton for almost a month since they were abducted from an oil industry barge in the mangrove-lined creeks of the Niger Delta.
The kidnapping was one of a series of militant attacks in the world's eighth largest oil exporter, which has cut supplies by almost a quarter.
“The hostages have been separated for strategic reasons and all considerations to their comfort and well-being disregarded henceforth,'' the militants said in an email.
“However…they will not be execuDiplomats say the militant group is fragmented and different factions have been giving different messages about the likelihood of release.
The militants originally seized nine employees of U.S. oil services company Willbros on February 18, but freed six on March 1.
It was the second series of kidnappings and attacks on the oil industry in two months, which analysts have linked to political instability in Nigeria before elections next year.
HEAVILY-ARMED FIGHTERS
In last month's attacks, heavily-armed fighters bombed several oil pipelines, sabotaged production platforms and crippled one of the main tanker loading platforms, all located on the western side of the vast wetlands region.
The group has vowed another large-scale attack on oil facilities in another area of the delta, and repeated the threat on Wednesday, advising foreign workers to leave.
“We will attack the most heavily fortified installations so the Nigerian government cannot claim to have been caught unawares,'' they said.
Royal Dutch Shell has evacuated its staff from the entire western delta, cutting 455,000 barrels per day (bpd) of its own output and 100,000 bpd pumped by other companies.
Western multinationals in the eastern delta, including ExxonMobil, ENI unit Agip, Chevron and Total are on a heightened state of alert.
The February attacks took place soon after the Nigerian military used helicopter gunships to bomb gangs in the delta which they said were stealing crude oil. The militants said innocent villagers were hit.
“Expatriates around the Niger Delta are advised again to leave as we do not wish to shed innocent blood,'' the militants said in their email.
“In the event of an escalated confrontation with the Nigerian military, they and their families will be attacked without discrimination in response to the indiscriminate attack tactics commonly applied by the Nigerian Army on communities in the Niger Delta,'' they added. read more

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Irish Independent: Shell planning breach claim dismissed

THE High Court has rejected a claim that Shell breached a planning condition requiring it to lodge a 20m security for the future restoration of the Corrib gas terminal site.
Mr Justice Thomas Smyth also yesterday dismissed a further claim by environmental activist Peter Sweetman that Shell had breached another planning condition by storing peat deposits on lands owned by the State forestry company Coillte near the terminal development.
Even if there was a “technical breach”, the judge said he would refuse Mr Sweetman's orders because of the bona fides of Shell on the planning issues and the delay by Mr Sweetman in bringing his proceedings, which led to Shell incurring financial losses. read more

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AP Worldstream: Venezuela warns Total: pay taxes this week or offices could be shut

Mar 16, 2006
Venezuela's tax authority warned the French oil firm Total SA that it could have its administrative offices shut as soon as Friday if it fails to pay a US$107 million (A89 million) tax bill.
Total is one of 22 oil firms that the tax agency has accused of misreading the nation's tax code and inflating tax deductions.
The tax agency's statement came a day after it said Total had agreed to pay part of its overdue tax bill this week. The tax agency has previously threatened the French oil company with fines and possible property seizures if it doesn't settle its tax bill promptly.
Total officials were not immediately available for comment.
The tax agency temporarily closed the commercial offices of Royal Dutch Shell Plc. last year for not paying its tax bill on time. Shell managed to negotiate a reduction in its retroactive tax bill after months of talks. It was fined US$130 million (A108 million) in early 2005, buy wound up paying only 10 percent of the original bill.
Venezuelan tax authorities say private and foreign state oil firms owe a total of nearly US$800 million (A665 million) in unpaid taxes from 2001 to 2004.
The tax agency also said that small oil firm Hocol, owned by Knightsbridge Petroleum Ltd., was presented with a retroactive tax bill for US$7.8 million (A6.5 million) as part of the same oil industry audit. read more

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AFX Europe (Focus): Shell oil platform blaze in North Sea, helicopters rescue workers

Mar 16, 2006
LONDON (AFX) – Scores of workers on an oil platform in the North Sea off Scotland were being air-lifted to safety early this morning after fire broke out, the coastguard said. Some 135 of the 184 workers on the Tern Alpha platform, owned by the Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell, were being rescued, a spokeswoman for the coastguard said.
“What they are doing is evacuating the non-essential personnel to a nearby installation,” Sophie Hirsh told Agence France-Presse.
“The fire is reported to be in control and no injuries have been reported,” she said.
The coastguard had scrambled four helicopters to the scene in a joint operation with the Royal Air Force after the alarm was raised at about 0045 GMT, the spokeswoman said.
At the same time, a team on board the platform, which is located 425 kilometers north-east of Aberdeen, was trying to tackle the electrical fire by cooling the area around its source.
Hirsh was unable to say what had caused the fire.
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Financial Times: Japan curbs Iran oil imports over nuclear concerns

By Carola Hoyos in London and Agencies in Tokyo
Published: March 15 2006 18:49 | Last updated: March 15 2006 18:49
Japan, Iran’s biggest oil customer, on Wednesday became the first country to reduce its imports of Iranian oil because of Tehran’s nuclear dispute with the west.
Nippon Oil, Japan’s largest refiner, will cut its purchases of Iranian crude oil by 15 per cent this year, Fumiaki Watari, Nippon’s chairman, said on Wednesday.
“We have started reducing the percentage of Iranian crude and (are) shifting to other grades,” he said in Tokyo. “Risks related to the country are getting higher.”
The move was announced as the permanent five members of the UN Security Council failed to agree a statement expressing “serious concern” about Iran’s nuclear programme.
US officials have been seeking “creative” ways of addressing the concerns of China, Japan and India about possible disruption to their supplies of Iranian oil in an effort to gain their support at the UN. Tehran has linked the nuclear dispute to its oil supplies., and there are growing worries in the oil industry that the dispute could eventually lead to an interruption in supplies or, at least, a review of contracts.
Several European and Asian oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, France’s Total and Japan’s Inpex, have contracts in Iran. “Because of this nuclear issue, Iran is starting to be seen as an unreliable supplier,” said Adam Sieminski, analyst at Deutsche Bank, who added that Nippon’s decision amounted to an “ad hoc sanction”.
So far it is unclear whether other customers – such as South Korea, Spain, France and Italy, which each import at least 100,000 barrels a day of Iranian oil – intend to follow Nippon.
Nippon’s decision, which would reduce Japan’s dependence on Iran by 4 per cent, was a company decision and did not represent an official position of the Japanese government, officials said. Japan buys one in every four barrels of Iran’s oil, importing about 580,000 barrels a day.
Iran is Japan’s third biggest supplier after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, providing 14 per cent of Japan’s oil.
Nippon said that it would now rely on producers such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Russia and its Asian neighbours to make up the shortfall.
Nippon’s decision is unlikely to reduce Iran’s overall exports because other consumers would pick up the cargos, analysts said. Iran is China’s biggest supplier, with the world’s second largest consumer increasing its purchases to 445,000 b/d in January.
US crude oil futures fell $1.10 to $62 a barrel on Wednesday in early trade in New York after US crude inventories increased more than expected, indicating that there was more supply than consumers could use. read more

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Financial Times: The outsider at the controls

By Tom Kirchmaier and Geoffrey Owen
Published: March 16 2006 02:00 | Last updated: March 16 2006 02:00
Chairmen of large British public companies are often invisible to the outside world as long as things are going well. The chief executive has a higher profile, and usually takesthe lead in dealing with the media and the City.
But when a storm blows up, as it has around Vodafone in recent weeks, the spotlight suddenly falls on the chairman – in this case Lord MacLaurin, the former Tesco boss who has been in the post since 1997 and is due to hand over to Sir John Bond, retiring chairman of HSBC, in July.
Lord MacLaurin was obliged last Sunday to issue a strong statement of support for his embattled chief executive, Arun Sarin. The question now is whether the two men, acting together, can convince shareholders that the company is on the right track.
This boardroom drama, like the one at Marks and Spencer last year (which ended with the appointment of a new chairman, Lord Burns), draws attention to a distinctively British cor­porate governance structure, as yet unadopted by any other major industrial ­country. It is the requirement, laid down in the combined code which applies to all UK listed companies, that the posts of chairman and chief executive should be separate and that the chairman should be independent at the time of his or her appointment.
In most US companies the chief executive is also chairman, while in France the président-directeur généralreigns supreme.
Americans believe, with some dissenting voices, that an independent chairman from outside adds little value to the business and leads to confused responsibilities at the top.
The British view is that the objectivity and broad experience of an outsider make for a more effective board and provide a necessary balance to the power of the chief executive.
Which system is better? There is no conclusive evidence one way or the other, but, as we found in a study carried out for the Chairmen's Forum*, an association of chairmen, most British holders of the title have no doubt that the separation of roles is right. Moreover, many of those surveyed have experience of both arrangements, as the single chairman/chief executive was common in UK companies in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the old days, they argue, too much power was concentrated in a single individual. Today, with companies exposed to greater scrutiny from investors and the media, the tasks of running the board and running the company have become increasingly different from each other. One person is unlikely to have both sets of skills or sufficient time to do both jobs well.
What skills does the chairman need? Most of those interviewed felt that direct experience of the industry in which the company operates was not essential. Indeed, some felt that if the newcomer knew too much about the business – a top-class retailer, for example, moving to another retailing company – he or she would be inclined to interfere in operational decisions.
What matters more than industry knowledge is that the candidate has a solid record of corporate performance, probably as chief executive of a listed company. That was clearly the attraction for Shell, the energy group, of Jorma Ollila, the outgoing chief executive of mobile phone maker Nokia, when selecting its next chairman.
Another industry crossover is the former Renault boss, Louis Schweitzer, who now chairs the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical group, AstraZeneca; the fact that he is neither British nor Swedish may have boosted his appeal.
Some companies have picked former finance directors as their chairman. Philip Hampton, chairman of J Sainsbury and formerly finance director at British Steel, British Gas, British Telecom and Lloyds TSB, is a recent example. A minority of interviewees take this further, arguing that finance directors make better chairmen than chief executives because they are more analytical and less likely to want to run the business.
Former politicians and ambassadors are generally ruled out on the grounds, as one chairman put it, that “you must have people who have strong commercial instincts – people who have learnt to live or die by making money”.
Other criteria to consider when appointing new chairmen are:
*they should be young enough to serve at least two three-year terms (which means not much more than 60 years old at the time of appointment);
*they should have a re-cord of making good appointments;
*they should have served as a non-executive director in comparable companies;
*they should be sufficiently respected in the business community to attract other non-executive directors of high quality.
The newcomer's skills and those of the chief executive need to be mutually reinforcing. The two also need to be compatible in personality and style, which is difficult to predict. Because of this, many companies prefer their new chairman to come from the ranks of their existing non-executive directors. He or she will have built up an understanding of the business and a rapport with the management team.
One chairman describes his relationship with the chief executive as paternal rather than fraternal. That is not easy to achieve in companies where a long-serving, dominant chief executive is better known in the outside world, and carries more weight within the company, than an incoming chairman.
In such cases the chairman may become too passive – and, since the chairman sets the tone for the board as a whole, there is a danger that any unease an outside director might feel about the direction of the business will be stifled.
There is also the tricky question of how much weight the serving chief executive should have in the selection process. Everyone accepts that any objections from this source must be taken very seriously, since the two individuals have to work closely together.
But if the chief executive's influence is too dominant, the company could endup with a non-threatening chairman who will be inclined to defer to rather than challenge the chief executive. Not surprisingly, chief executives in companies that are looking for a new chairman look warily at candidates who are known to have fired chief executives elsewhere.
The study demonstrates an overriding need for clarity in the chairman's job description. Some chairmen have a more proactive conception of the job than others – perhaps influenced by such leaders as Sir Owen Green, under whose chairmanship BTR became one of Britain's most successful engineering groups. This version of the chairman's role is workable, but only if it is accepted and understood by the chief executive and supported by the board.
One image captures perhaps more than any other the common perception of role: the chairman as airline pilot. He may delegate the task of operating the aircraft to the first officer, but is always available to take over in an emergency and is ultimately responsible for the safety of the passengers.
The analogy may not be perfect, but it underlines the point that no chairman, whether he spends a day a fortnight or four days a week with the company, can afford for one moment to take his eye off the controls.
*”The Changing Role ofthe Chairman”, £25, is available from [email protected]
Geoffrey Owen is a senior fellow at the London School of Economics. Tom Kirchmaier is a lecturer at Manchester Business School read more

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Western People (Ireland): Carey joins Shell’s ‘dream team’

THE recently retired Mayo Garda Chief Supt John Carey is the latest in a series of high profile people to be appointed by Shell E&P Ireland (SEPIL)in a bid to “regain the trust” of the local people.
On Friday, March 10 last SEPIL announced that it had appointed Bangor Erris native, Mr Carey, on a part time basis as an advisor to the Corrib gas project.
Mr Carey will be part of a larger team engaged in recent weeks to liaise with the Erris people in relation to the controversial gas project. His new colleagues will include former Western People journalist, Christy Loftus and former Co Secretary of Mayo Co Council, Padraig Hughes.
Mr Carey’s role will involve interacting with local groups and individuals and to report their hopes and concerns relating to the project to the Corrib management team. He will also inform the public about the plans for the project as it moves forward.
John Carey enjoyed a long and distinguished career of more than 40 years in public service when he retired from An Garda Siochana in April, 2005. He was Chief Superintendent of the Mayo Garda Division for the last nine years of his career and had spent previous terms of duty in Galway, Roscommon, Laois and Offaly.
Mr Carey is also renowned for his sporting achievements. He played for the Mayo team in the late 60s and 70s and captained the Mayo team that won the National League in 1970. The following year he was selected as the first Mayo GAA All Star and went on to manage the Mayo team later in that decade.
Mr Mary Carrigy, SEPIL’s Mayo Area Manager, said of the appointment: “As a former Chief Superintendent, a former Mayo County footballer and Team Captain and GAA all-star, John Carey knows Erris and Co Mayo intimately. He is a respected figure throughout the length and breath of the county. I am delighted that John has agreed to assist the Corrib gas partners as we work to regain the trust of the people of Erris and Mayo – which has been damaged by the events of the past year.” Mr Carey stated that the Corrib project would bring benefits to Erris and Mayo. The development was essential to Ireland.
He said SEPIL recognises that it needs to work in partnership with the local community to get the project back on track. “We hope that by engaging openly and honestly with local groups and individuals, including those who are currently strongly opposed to our proposals, we can reach a concensus which will allow this project to go forward,” he concluded. read more

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Moscow Times: EBRD Should Not Fund Sakhalin-2, Activists Say

Thursday, March 16, 2006. Issue 3372. Page 5.
Aa Aa Aa
Bloomberg
Royal Dutch Shell and its partners developing a multibillion dollar oil and gas project in the Far East should be denied funding by Eastern Europe's biggest lender because it's causing ecological damage, activists said.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development should not give loans as the Sakhalin-2 liquefied natural gas project endangers the island's wildlife, waterways and inhabitants, ecologists including Igor Chestin, chief executive officer of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund, said in Moscow.
Environmentalists maintain the project, whose costs doubled last year and which is now estimated to be worth around $20 billion, threatens the world's last 100 western gray whales by disturbing their feeding grounds.
A decision by the EBRD to fund the Shell-led project may help the venture raise at least $4 billion, the bank and Sakhalin regional authorities have said.
The initial hearing was held on Feb. 28 in London.
If the EBRD balks at providing financing for the venture, which includes Mitsui & Co. and Mitsubishi, it may convince other lenders, such as the Japan Bank for International Cooperation to withhold billions of dollars in loans for the project.
“The EBRD plays a lead role in a group of potential public lenders,” including JBIC and the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the London-based bank said last month on its web site.
The EBRD is holding a series of public consultations on the Sakhalin-2 project. The bank will hold sessions at Sakhalin island, off the Pacific coast, next week and later in Sapporo, Japan.
Work by Sakhalin Energy Investment, the project operator, was not perfect “but much better than a year ago,” said Jeffrey Jeter, an EBRD environment adviser. “We recognize the issues, the company recognizes the issues,” he said. “Our end analysis is that they've been addressed.”
The venture, which was originally supposed to cost $10 billion, is aiming to supply fuel to the United States and Asia. A LNG plant is scheduled to be completed on Sakhalin next year. read more

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