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A sudden attack of shyness by Total and Shell probably matters not a jot to the Iranians

Times Online
July 11, 2008

Analysis: not the end of the affair

Total’s apparent retreat sounds like a victory for the US in the continuing Cold War between Washington and Tehran, but it is nothing of the sort.

There has been no death blow, just the noise of an exploding squib. Total has put Pars LNG on ice. It has been in the chill cabinet for about two years as the French and its Malaysian partner Petronas squabbled with NIOC, the Iranian state oil company, over the division of the spoils. Iran offers the worst investment terms of any host oil and gas nation — insisting that foreign oil companies act as contractors with no upside in the value of oil and gas produced. Still, Iran has the world’s second-largest gas reserves and cannot be ignored. Its importance is growing, as Christophe de Margerie, Total’s chief executive, said in an interview with The Times. “We are not interested in a fight with the US Government,” he said. “This project has to fly one day. Everyone has to take responsibility if the world doesn’t have enough gas.”

The project — a $10 billion refrigerator that chills gas to minus 160C (-256F) at which point it liquefies — is one of several schemes to monetise Iran’s share of South Pars, a colossal gasfield that straddles the Gulf from Iran to Qatar. In May, Shell and Repsol, the Spanish firm, said they would withdraw from Persian LNG, opting to swap their interest for a later stage of development. We can expect that Total will opt for the same solution.

A sudden attack of shyness by Total and Shell probably matters not a jot to the Iranians. Iran cannot afford to export gas; it needs the fuel desperately at home. Despite its vast hydrocarbon reserves, a critical lack of infrastructure means it must import road fuel and gas from its neighbours.

The multinationals know that they are needed; it is just a question of when. Shell stayed in apartheid South Africa and is welcome there today. The relationship between oil giant and host is not a marriage; it is more like a complicated love affair. Total’s alleged ending of relations with Iran is nothing of the sort — it is just a cooling-off while another, more powerful relationship, takes precedence.

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