RWE Dea AG's Mittelplate oil drilling and production island is seen in the Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea, off the coast of northern Germany. Source: RWE Dea AG via Bloomberg
RWE has sold its North Sea oil and gas production and exploration arm

The UK has blocked the sale of North Sea gasfields from Germany’s RWE to a multibillion-dollar investment fund backed by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman, citing fears over the impact of any further sanctions against Moscow.

Ed Davey, energy secretary, has told the companies that a proposal that the fields be kept separate from LetterOne Group’s other energy businesses for a number of years had failed to alleviate his concerns about the impact possible future sanctions against Russian companies could have on the “continued operation of these 12 producing North Sea fields”.

In a statement on Saturday, the Department of Energy and Climate Change said “if the proposed acquisition were to proceed in its current form, he [Mr Davey] would be minded to require the companies to arrange for a further sale to a suitable third party”.

The decision is a blow to Mr Fridman’s LetterOne, which has recruited Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP, to run a $10bn fund that would use the assets of RWE Dea, including the North Sea fields, as a platform to build an international oil and gas business through partnership deals and acquisitions.

It is also significant because it is the first example of a western government publicly intervening in a corporate transaction because of the risk that sanctions against Russia could be tightened in future.

The €5bn deal to sell Dea had already been held up by opposition from the UK government following US and EU sanctions on Russia’s financial services, defence and energy sectors. The German group and L1 were seeking assurance that Britain would not seize control of Dea’s North Sea assets if Russian companies were targeted by additional sanctions.

They proposed that the UK business be operated by Dea but monitored by a separate governing entity, which would be a private foundation registered in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands foundation would assume full control of Dea’s North Sea business if sanctions on Luxembourg-based L1 or its owner were imposed. Sanctions would also have obliged RWE to buy back the UK business if the sanctions were imposed within one year of the deal being completed, which is due to happen next week.

Not only has the government declined to provide a “letter of comfort” on this, its decision means that the UK North Sea fields, should the deal go ahead, would need to be sold to a different third party.

A Whitehall insider said that the problems that might arise if the deal went ahead and sanctions were imposed would be “enormous”. There are 13 fields that would be affected of which Dea UK is the operator of five. Twelve of these are producing. “All of these fields would likely be shut-in with serious health and safety and environmental risks,” said the official. For the five fields currently operated by Dea UK, the government would probably need “to confront these risks directly”.

A UK government spokesman declined to elaborate but said the decision was unrelated to Friday night’s killing of Boris Nemtsov, one of the most senior leaders of Russia’s political opposition.

LetterOne and RWE declined to comment on the decision.

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