BP takes action to scupper gas pipeline sale

Energy companies appeal to regulator over plans by National Grid Transco, writes Clayton Hirst

National Grid Transco's hopes of raising up to £4.5bn from the part-sale of its network of regional gas pipes have been dealt a blow by BP, which has asked the regulator to block any deal.

BP, one of NGT's largest gas customers, has written to the energy regulator, Ofgem, urging it to step in. It argues that a sale would be bad for competition and make the market too complex.

NGT owns eight separate gas distribution networks, which are worth £9.4bn based on the value of their regulated assets. NGT wants to remain the largest single gas distribution operator in the UK but is contemplating selling some of its networks to fund its growth plans in North America. Analysts expect NGT to raise around £4.5bn from the sales.

However, BP has told the regulator: "Ofgem should not at the present time sanction the sale of one or more of NGT's distribution networks. We are yet to identify any area in which there will be greater simplicity for customers, shippers or suppliers. We therefore suggest that the sale of a [distribution network] could actually hinder supply competition by increasing complexity."

BP, the UK's largest quoted company, with a market value of £94bn, has asked Ofgem to spend longer investigating the proposal because a sale "would be practically irreversible".

In a further blow to NGT, Norway's largest oil and gas company, Statoil, has also written to Ofgem warning that it is "unconvinced" of any benefits from a sale of NGT's gas distribution business.

"We firmly believe that significant costs will be incurred together with increased risks from regulatory, financial and operational complexity," the company said.

At best the 20-plus letters Ofgem has received from energy companies about NGT's plans are lukewarm about the proposed sale.

Officially, NGT hasn't yet made a final decision to sell some of its gas distribution networks. However, it has hired investment banks NM Rothschild and Merrill Lynch to drum up interest. If Ofgem gives the green light, NGT is expected to seek offers and will then make a final decision on a sale.

A spokeswoman for NGT said: "There is quite a lengthy process to be gone though and the earliest date any possible sale could be fully completed by is September 2004."

The spokeswoman added that gas customers would benefit though lower prices and improved levels of service. But she added: "Safety in the gas industry is paramount and no changes will be considered that compromise the safe operation of the network."

There has already been considerable interest in NGT's networks. Clare Spottiswoode, the former gas industry regulator, is reported to be seeking financial backing for a bid for one of them. Other companies thought to be keeping a close eye on the process include United Utilities; YTL, the Malaysian owner of Wessex Water; and Scottish & Southern Energy.