Russia pays homage to Christophe de Margerie


Le Figaro

On Saturday, in Saint Petersburg, Vladimir Putin attended the naming ceremony for the ice-breaking LNG tanker named after Total’s former President. The ceremony was held in private, but had major economic and diplomatic importance.

We startle. The deafening roar of the ship horn, which sounded when blue-white-red balls soared into the air, makes us imagine the last, playful and hot greeting by the late Christophe de Margerie, ex-president of Total, whose name was given to the giant ice-breaking LNG tanker last Saturday in Port Bronka located in western Saint Petersburg. With her entire impressive tonnage, the ship rises above the canopy under which a hundred guests gathered to pay homage to the French industrialist and wish a happy life for the ship.

This ceremony was a private meeting, which brought together immediate family members of Christophe de Margerie; however, unlike other similar meetings, it was held at the highest level, as it was run by Vladimir Putin himself. “He said that he would come, so he will come”. The Russian President had kept others waiting for him for a couple of hours when finally his helicopter landed at the airport. After all, it was reasonable to keep the ship waiting, which bears the name of a man whose late arrivals became a legend. And this allowed his relatives, business partners and former colleagues to share memories and tell each other a wealth of stories about this leader, unlike so many others, who was immediately recognised by his gorgeous bushy moustache; there was even an idea to feature it on the icebreaker’s bow. Time has passed since that tragic night on 20 October 2014 when the jet of Total’s former president crashed at Vnukovo airport in Moscow, killing him and three crew members. Gradually everybody accepted the accident version, of course an absurd one. Against your will, you are torn between surrender to fate and bewilderment. The driver of the snow plough the plane collided with is still under investigation, just as air traffic control, but not all questions have been answered.

His widow Bernadette is surrounded by their children: Laetitia, Diane and Fabrice, his brother Jean-Marc, and everyone recalls how much they loved those short moments (and those endless evenings!) spent with Christophe de Margerie. Jokes of a man called Big Moustache are recalled, animating those attending this reception. They laugh, they cry. Patrick Pouyanne, who became the head of this petroleum holding two days after de Margerie’s death, stands still at the rostrum for a moment as his eyes fill with tears. It is amazing to see this important leader of the Paris Stock Exchange, this imposing sturdy man known for his volcanic temperament, so shocked. Vladimir Putin arrived to pay homage to the “prominent leader of French industry, a big and true friend of Russia”. “He had a unique strategic vision; he always strived to strengthen the ties of friendship and cooperation between France and Russia.”

Last winter, the Head of State already spared his time to address the ship’s crew during a video conference held on the day when the ship headed out to sea for the first time. In fact, Christophe de Margerie became a symbol for the Kremlin, a symbol of cooperation between the western petroleum holding company and Russia, that started long ago and continues despite the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European authorities against Moscow in the summer of 2014. These sanctions were condemned by Christophe de Margerie, on the very day of his death, in a conversation with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. In Russia, Patrick Pouyanne continues the cause of his predecessor and reconfirms the “pioneer spirit” of his firm and long-term commitments of this French oil company in this country. The continuity of this strategy was reconfirmed in November 2014, when the Russian President received Patrick Pouyanne in his governmental dacha in Sochi. “Our mission is to build bridges and not fences”, Patrick Pouyanne said before Vladimir Putin on Saturday, obviously alluding to Donald Trump’s America. Several days ago, they met in Versailles during the meeting between the Russian President and Emmanuel Macron, at the exhibition dedicated to Peter the Great sponsored by Total. In this connection, the Russian President mentioned again the need to maintain ties between Russia and France despite “frictions”, “which, by the way, was well understood by both the heads of enterprises and the two countries.” And all this is despite the recent G7 warnings regarding Moscow in the context of the conflict with Ukraine.

The naming ceremony for the ship was fitted into several diplomatic events, including the St. Petersburg Economic Forum held over three days, which was attended by the Prime Minister of India as a special guest of honour as well as many heads of foreign firms, including those from France: Frederic Oudea (Societe General) and Jean-Pascal Tricoire (Schneider). The economic importance of the event in Port Bronka was also large. The ship Christophe de Margerie, whose godmother became Valentina Matvienko, Chair of the Federation Council, is the first vessel in a series of unique ice-breaking gas carriers that numbers 15. There are many reasons to speak about their uniqueness. These ships will carry precious cargo: liquefied natural gas (LNG) produced on the Yamal Peninsula located in the Arctic area of Western Siberia, 600 km to the north of the Arctic Circle. This is a project worth USD 27 billion; its participants are Total(20%), Russia’s Novatek holding (in which Total holds a 19.8% stake), and China’s CNPC holding; the production cycle starts next year and full capacity will be reached in 2019 (90,000 barrels per day for Total). This giant unprecedented project is implemented in the extreme conditions of the Far North, where the polar night lasts for two months and winter temperatures fall to -50 C°. “It is very important - for the development of the global energy industry, for the development of new extraction technologies, for the development of the Northern Sea Route, for Arctic exploration,” summarised Vladimir Putin in his speech on Saturday. The icebreaker “christened” in St. Petersburg was a response to the challenge.

“This is the type of ship needed to transport gas from Yamal,” summarises Jacques Besse, alias “Admiral”, who heads the team of engineers at Total who participated in designing this ship. She is a monster, 300 metres long, with a 45 MW propulsion system and a cargo capacity of 172,000 cubic metres. She is a technological treasure worth 320 million dollars! Everything in her is designed to resist the cold of the North Pole: deck equipment, winches, mooring accessories, etc. are protected by housings and the number of hydraulic systems is kept to a minimum. The ship can turn around her axis and, which is important, to pass through ice up to 2.1 metres thick. “Her inclined stern section is specially adapted for these purposes,” Jacques Besse explains, “In order to break the ice, the ship has to “sit” on it, just as Obelix”, he laughs. The build is finished by three propellers under her bottom; they must crush the ice “in the same way as for a Margarita cocktail”; in this way, the ice will not stick to her hull and will not be able to crush the ship. And since such manoeuvres are often made astern, the ship has two command bridges connected by a corridor.

Four ships by November

The first ice trials conducted from mid-February to mid-March were successful. The South Korean shipyard Daewoo finally completed the job after facing production problems in the initial phase and scrapping 6,000 tonnes of steel structures. They will deliver four more ships by November. The ships will sail from the port of Sabetta to the Ob Estuary and via a narrow man-made channel and will enter the Kara Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Then two other routes are planned, upon which Sovcomflot will operate. The first route is westward: Arc 7 ships will carry LNG to the terminals in Zeebrugge and Dunkirk, where it will be transhipped to more conventional vessels bound for southern Europe or Asia along the southern route. The second route goes through the north, eastwards, through the heaviest ice. This route will be used from June to November; LNG will be shipped to Asian ports, primarily China. The Yamal project was signed in late 2013, six months before sanctions, which still apply to Novatek, were imposed. This forced Total and its partners to draw up the budget without raising a single dollar from the U.S. The slack was picked up by China. In the meantime another giant project, the Shtokman gas condensate field, had to be closed. It turned out to be far too expensive. The oil and gas sector has changed following a drop in the exchange rate and such excesses became unaffordable. Total is getting adapted to the new situation and is furthering its plans in new markets: Brazil and Iran. There remains the heritage of Christophe de Margerie - this Russian project patiently promoted since the opening of the holding’s first office in Moscow in 1991. Sergey Mingareev, now retired, who stood at the inception of the project, testifies: “Christophe loved Russia very much and the Russians saw it.”